Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Shrubbery

I follow Toby up the path on the side of the hill, turning to look at the panoramic view below and beyond to the gray, winter-day ocean. “Did you know this path used to be the Old Partington Road?” he reminds me. “Yep,” I reply automatically, as I watch our scruffy black and white dog, the neighbor’s chihuaha, and our orange kitten scamper up the hill beside us. The kitten is really scampering, hopping ahead, his fluffy tail waving proudly behind him.

Forgoing the $50 tree from the lot in town this holiday, we’re doing what we’ve said we’ll do for years: chain-sawing a non-native pine tree (well, bush, really) and taking it back down the hill to our living room. Christmas really begins with decorating the tree. Breaking into the box of last year’s goodies stored on a shelf, unwinding the strings of lights, seeing which of the ornaments have broken, or are just too terribly corny to use again.

The beautiful ones emerge to our delight from tissue and we remember, Oh yes, this is the tiny crystal globe that Margaret painted, with our dogs Kip and Mina looking at the Big Sur stars. Oh, here’s the blown glass Amanita mushroom! And the vermeil oak leaf from our trip to Yosemite a decade ago.

It’s our wild kitten Cricket's first Christmas, so the crinkly paper and shiny, sparkly, dangly things emerging from the holiday box are pounced on and purred over. The leaves are falling outside like snowflakes, and suddenly I see in my mind’s eye a 12 point buck walk past my bedroom window, but no, that was a winter day in the Oakland hills, almost 20 years ago.

The tide of the end of the year (and this time, of the first decade of our 21st century) draws us to contemplation, and a bittersweet sense of Time. The current we want to flow with, not getting stuck (for too long!) in the swirling eddies of life.

This morning I wrapped stocking gifts while listening to bluesy Christmas songs. Funny how so many of them are about Santa bringing “my baby” down the chimney, of rewarding good girls, of all I want is L-O-V-E for the holidays. As Ray Charles sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I wonder, where did that red nose come from, again?

Since our home is more Pagan than Christian, we celebrate the ending of the year with deep breaths, kindness, winter naps, and the baking of many mincemeat pies. Then, a theme party with friends on the 25th—Champagne at sunset, good food, warm fires, dancing and laughter.

One year we wore 70’s outfits and danced to disco music late into the night, hanging mirrored balls on the tree. Another season was Spanish Christmas, with shawls, mantillas and our neighbor Jay in his running of the bulls costume from Pamplona. There was the Mad Hatter party, when we wore silly hats, drank lots of tea from mis-matched cups and changed places around the table during our feast. This time, it’s YO HO HO, a Pirate Christmas, with buckets of flaming rum punch…

After this year, and the end of a somewhat disastrous decade for the world, we all deserve a little Joy. While we’re at it, let’s hope and work for Peace on Earth—which, as Santa will tell you, begins at home, in our hearts.
Photos from Rowland-Jones' family archive

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hibernating with Rumi

I always know when I'm about to get sick: I start envisioning a nap (a long winter's nap, as the famous holiday poem goes.) This time it came on like a wave: chills, aches and tummy unease, dizziness and exhaustion. Boom! Instant winter cold.

Because we go inward at this time of year (conserving our energy to survive the elements, to renew our strength for the year to come) questions of contentment and belonging surface. Where are we happiest? Who makes up our community? (Even Mary and Joseph were looking for that as they traveled to their home town for the census. Remember they were told there was no room at the inn, perhaps the first documented case of holiday angst.)

Early Winter is a time when we should be hibernating, but instead we find ourselves going into a kind of surreal hyper-drive with the demands of the season. We cope with the stress of family expectations and excessive socializing by over-indulging ourselves, to top it off with dancing on tables at the office Christmas party. Oh, right, we should save that for New Year's Eve. The whole thing, while certainly enjoyable, strikes me as a massive, culture-wide anniversary reaction: each year is a touchstone, recalling all the holiday seasons of the past.

A day at home, sick with a tummy bug, gives me me the unexpected peace of slowing down, of stopping. Surrendering to the land beneath the covers, slipping into the quiet depths of the sheets, finally stilling my busy mind as I try to give comfort to my body. Sipping peppermint tea with a mindfulness I rarely experience when I'm in full swing, reading until I surrender to the aches and slumber deeply, all day and into the night. Guilt-free enjoyment of total sloth.

Other things comfort me in these times too: my cat sprawled at the end of the bed, absorbing the heat from the wood-burning stove nearby, the neighbor's little dog looking up at me demurely from the sheepskin near the altar, my dog running up to the bedroom door, ears flapping and tail spinning, happy to come inside for a bit of bacon. Practicing the simplest of domestic arts: tending the home fires with the wood dutifully chopped (and hauled, and split, and stacked) by my husband.

After hours of delicious hibernation, medicated with pain pills and drinking lots of water, I emerge to another level of consciousness, which in my case, is always aided by a dose of Rumi's poetry. Something about being slightly broken lends itself to letting his words flow into my soul with a new, fuller understanding—

There's a path from me to you
I'm constantly looking for,
so I try to keep clear and still
as water does with the moon.

Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is: Suffer the pain.

Each moment you call me to you
and ask how I am, even though you know.
The love I answer you with

stirs like wind through cypress.

Your presence is a river

that refreshes everyone,
a rose-garden fragrance.

Don't worry about making doorways

between individual lovers when

this flow is so all around.

Some souls flow like clear water.

They pour into our veins
and feel like wine.
I give in to that. I fall flat.

We can sail this boat lying down!

Humble living does not diminish. It fills.

Going back to a simple self gives wisdom.
When a man makes up a story for his child,

he becomes a father and a child

together, listening.

You don't win here with loud publicity.

Union comes of not being.

These birds do not learn to fly,

until they lose all their feathers.

Rumi's words are from Say I Am You, the John Moyne, Coleman Barks translation.
Photos by Linda Sonrisa