Reading the Signs

If I had a blog, today I would write about the new journey I have embarked upon.

Almost Home

Almost Home

Lately, the Powers-That-Be have been sending me lots of signs regarding my need for faith. I know I’ve touched on this before, because faith in a higher power has always eluded me, but these days, I am taking a new tack on this ancient conundrum based on the events of a day-trip I took with my mom.

When Mom and I travel, more often than not, we listen to Southern Gospel music. That may sound like an odd choice for a neo-Pagan, but oddly enough, hymns have always been a meaningful part of my life. Mom, you see, is a wonderful singer and when I was a child, she lulled me to sleep with the verses of “Abide With Me,” “The Ninety and Nine,” and a thousand other songs she learned growing up in the Baptist church. I still love the messages of peace and rest that are carried in those melodies and it makes me yearn for a life of surety, founded on complete trust in a Divine Power greater than myself.  If only I could bring myself to believe such a thing…

The Journey Begins

The Journey Begins

This was the topic of discussion as Mom and I drove along last Tuesday and along the way, we concluded that faith is something you develop through practice. That means you have to start at the bottom, with only a sense of the end goal in mind, and practice until you grow into the habit of faith.

We were quite pleased with our perspective and were singing along with the Gaither Vocal Band when as semi passed us. On the back of the truck was a sticker that simply said, “FAITH.” Beneath it was the scripture reference: Philippians 4:4-9. I looked up the passage when I got home and it says:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

To be honest, I have never looked up a Scripture pasted on the back of a truck before, but this one was clearly speaking to the new direction Mom and I were contemplating, but there was more to come.

Later that evening, I was perusing Facebook and the site for my favorite TV show, The West Wing, posted a meme where the Chief-of-Staff tells the President, “Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given unto you. In other words, fake it ’til you make it.” It may not be a Bible verse, but God was speaking just the same.

 

Signs Along the Way

Signs Along the Way

So here I am: A middle-aged Pagan living her life as if she trusts The Divine to take care of everything. It is a strange feeling, quite foreign to a cynic like myself, but I am willing to take this road into the unknown and see where it leads. I will heed the signs and let my Higher Power show me the way.

Christmas to Me: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would continue the story of my favorite Christmas…

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

Christmas Eve dawned grey and cold. By mid-morning, snow began falling, giving the landscape an ethereal, “Jack Londonesque” quality. Just before noon, the tableau was complete as two teams of sled dogs appeared from the forest edge. If Santa and his reindeer had appeared on Lark Lake that morning I could not have been more excited. I had wanted to be a musher since I was ten years old – the winter I hitched our yellow lab, Michael, to my toboggan and played “Iditarod” from dawn to dusk on the snow-covered fields that made up our farm. Now, at long last, I had a chance to do the real thing: Ride behind a string of sled dogs in the wilderness of The North.

Our Sled Dogs

Our Sled Dogs

The afternoon was everything I’d hoped for: Flying over the frozen landscape under the expert guidance of our mushers, getting a sense of the skill it takes to manage a team of eight canine athletes. My experience driving horses did little to prepare me for the experience of running dogs. Although the dogs were harnessed and attached to the sled, there were no reins to guide or stop the team. All directions, “gee” for right, “haw” for left, and the all important “whoa,” are spoken by the musher. The dogs have complete control over whether they obey or not, thus making a well-trained team an absolute necessity. Happily, both teams we rode with that day were the picture of obedience and their synchronicity with their drivers was poetry in motion.

Rest Stop on the Trail

Rest Stop on the Trail

After a couple hours of traveling, we stopped for a rest. We were cold and needed hot cocoa to fuel our inner fires, while the dogs were hot (it was, after all fifteen degrees that afternoon) and needed time to rest, drink, and roll merrily in the snow. If I ever had any doubts as to whether or not sled dogs were happy in their work, they were erased that winter’s day. I have never seen dogs with more joie de vie. As soon as our break was over, they were ready to go: Jumping and barking and pulling at the traces so we’d know they were far from ready to go home.

Thanking Our New Friends

Thanking Our New Friends

We returned to the cabin shortly before dusk and thanked the mushers and each of their dogs for giving us the adventure of a lifetime. As they vanished into the woods across the lake and the light from the mushers’ headlamps faded from sight, The Great Silence returned to Lark Lake and Christmas Eve began.

A Toast to Christmas

A Toast to Christmas

Our holiday dinner was simple fare: Hamburger casserole and dinner rolls, accompanied by fine wine, with which we toasted family, the North Woods, and the sacredness of the season.  As we did the dinner dishes, we turned on the short-wave radio and listened to a boys’ choir in Germany, singing carols to celebrate that holiest of eves. One-by-we made our way to the sauna, returning warm, clean, and ready for an evening around the fire. We sat up until midnight, sharing memories of Christmases past until, at last, we blew out the lamps and turned in for the night. Mom and Dad slept on the futon by the stove and David, Kindra, and I slept in the loft, nestled in our sleeping bags, with starlight shining in the windows. Music from a choir in England lulled me to sleep and for the first time in decades, I felt the spirit of Christmas in every fibre of my being. My last thoughts that wondrous night were the words of favorite carol. “O Holy Night…O Night Divine.”

To be continued…

Out West Part IV: Endings and Beginnings

If I had a blog, today I would write about the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

For many years, I have experienced the pulse of our living Earth as a song. It resonates in the sigh of the wind on a chilly October night, the aria of birdsong on a spring morning, the gentle hush of snow falling on brown leaves. I was not surprised to hear The Earth Song in the desert or at the feet of the Navajo Grandmother, but Santa Fe, the city of “saintly faith,” gave me one last refrain, a piece of the song I thought lost to me forever. In Santa Fe, I heard The Earth Song in the stillness of The Church. It had been decades since I left the world of traditional Christian worship, but in the Cathedral of St. Francis, where I lit candles and prayed, The Earth Song found me and drew together the circle of holiness, found in the roots of my faith.

A Light in Dark Places

A Light in Dark Places

Inside the quiet sanctuary, I felt holiness in its purest form. As I walked down the long aisle, a thousand Sunday mornings came rushing back. This was a dance I knew by heart. When I reached the front pew, I bowed to Mother Mary, crossed myself, then knelt to pray. The words of the Episcopal prayer book returned like the voice of a long lost friend, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy name….”

I went to the Chapel of the Madonna and lit candles and prayed for the healing of the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico and wrote my prayer request in the book beside the altar. The kindly old man standing nearby assured me my prayer would be offered at the evening service. I nodded in thanks, tears welling in my eyes.

Evening on the Mountain

Evening on the Mountain

In this pilgrimage, this single trip into the desert, my faith came full circle and I am comforted to know that the same Song binds all those who believe in something greater than themselves. Wherever I walk, and whatever spiritual path I take, I am connected to the same Divine mystery. It may come to me as Arthur, the bear, as one of The Grandmothers, or as the ringing of cathedral bells, the Song remains the same.

As we left the quiet of the cathedral and the solace of the desert, I could only think of one phrase with which to end our sojourn. As we drove east, into the sunrise of a new day, I recalled the closing words of the Episcopal Eucharist: “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Who could aspire to more?

 

 

The Weecher Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about my family’s tendency to go on lyrics-safari when it comes to bird songs. It might be because we are a creative and humorous lot, but most of the time its a need for common sense ; a trait that sometimes seems lacking in the world of birding professionals.

Now, I grant you it is hard to put words to a melody that is not your own, especially when the composer is of the avian species, but when I read the description of  bird calls in field guides and online, I wonder, “What were they thinking?” For example, how many of us really think the brown thrasher sounds like he’s saying “plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it?”  I think that’s pretty ambitious even for a smart bird like the thrasher. So, in the face of this mishmash of lyrics, my family simply makes up our own “bird-words” and thus far, it has served us well.

Miss Carolina

Miss Carolina

First, there is The Weecher Bird, aka the Carolina Wren. I know this because it is the alarm that wakes me each morning, rain or shine. Miss Carolina sits outside my bedroom window and blasts me with her morning aria.”Weecher! Weecher! Weecher!” she proclaims over and over. Whatever it means in wren-speak, it certainly gets my blood flowing. According to “the experts,” the Carolina says “teakettle-teakettle” or “Germany-Germany,” but I assure you, my wren is using a song-book from a different conservatory.

The "Tornado Bird"

The “Tornado Bird”

Next we have The Tornado Bird, aka Tufted Titmouse. As a severe weather aficionado, I’ve tested this somewhat ominous lyric and amhappy to report  it does not correlate with the onset of storms.That said, if the titmice of the world could learn to forecast the weather, they would give meteorology an big push forward. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to rely on Weather Underground to keep us informed.

The Titmouse Knows All

The Titmouse Knows All

Another name for the Titmouse is The Stupid Bird: This should, in no way, impugn the intelligence of my little grey friends. No, no. This song was written just for me. When Mr. Titmouse sings this song, his accuracy is depressingly accurate. The rapid-fire solo of “stupid-stupid-stupid!” is performed most often when I am working on some hare-brained carpentry project at the barn and, believe me little bird, you aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

Psycho Bird

Psycho Bird

There is one more song that seems to rise above the others lately. It is the well known “what-cheer, what-cheer,” of the Northern Cardinal. In the past, I have been on the bandwagon with those who feel uplifted by this happy song, but this year, it is a cover for one particularly deranged red-bird.

The cardinal in question is obsessed with his reflection in car mirrors. We assume he thinks it is another bird, one he must drive out of his territory, but before we knew it, Mr. What Cheer had vandalized three of our vehicles to the point we had to have the mirrors replaced. We now keep the mirrors covered with removable bags, but I no longer feel my spirits lift when I hear the cardinal greet the day. I guess its true that “one bad apple (or cardinal) spoils the lot.”

With the fall migration coming on, I will soon be bombarded with new bird songs. I will hear the White-Throated Sparrow as he sings, Oh-sweet-canada-canada,”  the Dark-Eyed Junco’s “musical trill of 7-23 notes that resembles the Chipping Sparrow, the Pine Warbler and the Goldfinch” and  the Field Sparrow, whose song is described as “having the quality of a bouncing ball coming to rest.” I will be dumbfounded on a regular basis and although I will carry a field guide on my treks, I will be making notes in the margins; making my contribution to the worlds of music and bird watching as only one who knows The Weecher Bird can.

The Uncommon Common Katydid

The Common True Katydid - Helping me with my photography last summer.

The Common True Katydid – Helping me with my photography last summer.

If I had a blog, today I would write about Pterophylla camellifolia the Common True Katydid. Here in Missouri, summer nights are far from silent. The chorus actually begins in March, with the song of the spring peeper. As the nights warm, they are joined (and eventually replaced by) leopard frogs, Blanchert’s cricket frogs, chorus frogs, grey tree frogs, and bullfrogs. In late April, whippoorwills add their lilting voices, and in June, various forms of cicada join the band. Then, on a sultry night in early July, the last singer comes to center stage. He is dressed in a leaf-shaped suit of emerald green, and though his voice is rough and strident, there is beauty in his love song that rivals the finest aria.

In hopes of attracting his lady-love, the male katydid rubs one forewing against the other, much as a violinist draws a bow across the strings. As the summer progresses, males join forces to compete for mates with neighboring band by synchronizing their songs so they alternate with the vibrato of  their competitors. The loudest band of katydid males gets the most mates, so these competitions produce a powerful, pulsating chorus that puts the rest of the night-singers to shame.

The Cover Page of Mom & Dad's Article

The Cover Page of Mom & Dad’s Article

Many years ago, I became intimately acquainted with two katydids named Robin and Dalton. Dad collected these special katys to photograph and sell with an article Mom was writing for Missouri Conservationist. The article was called Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). The title is an homage to Mozart’s serenade in G major, but the article focused on a young entomologist with the Nature Conservancy who was studying the songs of katydids and other night insects. Robin and Dalton, were featured in several photographs, then stayed with us until they passed away late in November. Wild katydids die with the first frosts of autumn, but the benefits of indoor living may have given Robin and Dalton bragging rights as the oldest katydids in history.

This  year, the katydids started singing on July 7th.  Mom and I were getting ready for bed and had a feeling it was time to see if our summer friends were tuning up. We went out on the patio and drank in the soft summer twilight. We heard the bullfrogs at the pond and the whirring call of a cicada in the trees. We waited and waited and then we heard them! “Kay-t-t-did! Kay-t-t-did!” echoed from the edge of the woods. It was one male, maybe two – just a warm-up for the hundreds that will serenade us in nights to come.

As fireflies twinkled in the dusk and a gentle breeze danced across the sleeping farm, it occurred to me that though we may dream of exploring other planets and discovering remarkable alien life-forms, we would be hard pressed to find another world as astounding as the one we now inhabit. It makes me think of a quote by naturalist and environmentalist John Muir:

Creation's Dawn

Creation’s Dawn

“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’  The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half-made, becomes more beautiful every day.”  

Amen.

All Day Singin’ and Dinner on the Ground

My Grandad's Homeplace

My Granddad’s Homeplace

If I had a blog, today, Independence Day, I would write about the gift the Founding Fathers gave me when they made Freedom of Religion my inalienable right. I am a religious anomaly: I draw strength from Buddhism, Native American Spirituality, pantheism, my own mystical experiences, and, yes, Southern Gospel Music. People who know my pagan tendencies simply can’t believe my Gospel Favorites have a playlist of their own, next to Celtic Women, Carlos Nakai, and Jimmy Buffet, but they are there – in great abundance. I have the The Blackwood Brothers, the Statler Brothers, The Statesmen, The Cathedrals, The Happy Goodmans, and more than a hundred other singers who have inspired me over the years. I know group personnel the way some people know players on sports teams and I if you give me a subject, I can think of a gospel song to match.

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

This morning, July 4th, I woke up with “I’m Free Again,” by Reverend Vesphew (Vep) Ellis, and it occurred to me that , more often than not, I have a Southern Gospel song on my mind. Why would a liberal, tree-hugging, neo-pagan know the songs in the Broadman Hymnal front-to-back and listen to Pandora’s Bill & Gloria Gaither gospel station? Well, first of all, how can you feel anything but love for a craft whose artists have names like: Vesphew Ellis, Denver Crumpler, Hovie Lister, and Vestal Goodman? Those are names that demand attention and pique one’s curiosity and they don’t disappoint. The artists who were called to sing this music are good, and true, and full of a kind of  faith rarely found in our cynical world. A kind of faith I desperately need. These songs were originally sung in the little country churches that formed the nucleus of most communities in the early 20th century. The tradition of Southern Gospel music developed as performance music, tailored  to quartet singing, and as “convention songs” that were popular at revivals and singing schools across the South. Often these songs would be the entertainment for an entire day of music and homemade pot-luck, called an, “All Day Singin’ With Dinner on the Ground.”  The music was an eclectic blend of traditional hymns, negro spirituals, country, bluegrass, and a cappella traditions. From the 1920s through the 1950s Southern Gospel music grew to new heights of popularity. Artists toured with full bands, drawing crowds of all denominations and faiths. In the 1990’s, Southern Gospel had a resurgence of popularity thanks to Gospel magnate Bill Gaither, who gave many of the original stars of Southern Gospel a second round of popularity as they reached their golden years.

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

But why do I love these songs? They speak to my need for comfort and safety in an increasingly unsafe world. Even though I find courage in the drum-beats of a Native American pow-wow, solace in the celebration of Longest Night, and The Divine in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, there is something familiar about these songs. They are the songs my family has sung since they first settled in the Ozarks. They are the lullabies my mother and grandmother sang to me at bedtime, and the first thing that comes to mind when I’ve lost my way.  Hold me fast, let me stand, In the hollow of Thy hand; Keep me safe ’til the storm passes by. 1     Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home. 2   Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 3

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

I am proud to know these songs. In a way, they are the “songs of my people,” a part of my heritage and a part of my spiritual DNA. They live within me and keep alive the pillars of faith who gave them to me as a birthright. I will never be a church-goer or a Bible-pounding fundamentalist, but how lucky am I to live in a country that lets me have it all. I can love my Southern Gospel music, be uplifted by the faith of women like Vestal Goodman, and also revere the words of Lakota Sioux shaman, Black-Elk, search for enlightenment on the Buddhist path, and touch the hand of The Divine beneath the aurora on a lake in the North Woods. Thank you Founding Fathers for giving me Freedom to worship as I choose. You have given me the greatest gift a country can give. Happy Independence Day!