Friday, December 28, 2007

Our Lady of Peace

This is the entrance to the chapel of the Virgin of Peace that I stumbled upon one afternoon after quixotically entering the indigo-trimmed cantaloupe orange church that I had passed many times. Unlike other larger churches in Cholula and Puebla, the cantaloupe church had only one chapel, this one dedicated to Nuestra Senora de la Paz. This photo is from the inside out, from inside the sanctuary. You can see the red glads.

I was alone, walking back from Tepanapa, the ancient great pyramid of Cholula, Mexico. I stepped off the street, my face as pink as the cotton visor I had picked up in the market after having burned my nose. I walked through the flower encrusted arch of the churchyard. I passed a trio of men busy in the heat of the day pruning trees into birds. A small boy-child with a pink broom swept leaves. Never too young in Mexico to put your hands to work.

I was surprised when I first tried the door, a massive wooden door, more wall than door. It was locked. The doors of most churches in Cholula and Puebla are usually wide open all day long (for they are public buildings in everyday use not just for special times). I wondered, as I glanced over at the topiary pruning, maybe they were getting reading for a festival?

I decided to stroll the grounds and visit the gravestones--or gravebeds, I should say, like this white one with a little window to another world carved into it. Maybe a portal to let the spirit through? I heard a voice call me and turned to see one of the men running to the doors of the church with a massive skeleton key in his hands. Gesticulating at the door, he was apologizing profusely in Spanish. With this huge black iron key that would never fit in any pocket, he opened the doors for me. I thanked him profusely as I stepped over the threshold.

I was the only person in the church. It was very quiet. The light was diffused. Soft. A beautiful blue talavera bowl filled with blessed water sat by the entrance. One dips a finger or two of the right hand in a ritual of purification before making the sign of the cross, before entering the sacred mysteries.

Closer to the high altar, just below Guadalupe in a black cape trimmed in gold, a white lace tablecloth was strewn with deep red rose petals. Vases of red gladiolas, the same deep dark blood red of the roses, picked fresh that morning, graced either side of the ground.

The chapel to Our Lady of Peace was on the left, on the dark side of the cantaloupe church with topiary birds. I didn't even notice it at first. It was the small window of duskiness that shimmered against the wall that signaled an opening. The lights in the church effused a soft butter yellow, the portal was darkened. Can I go in? I ducked my head and stepped through. It was so dark. Once through the small entrance to the chapel of the Virgin of Peace, the heat of the day and the noise of the street fell away. Even my pink nose quieted down! I sat on a pew, in the dark, in the silence, grateful for the sanctuary of peace that was opened for me, that the work of others had opened.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Making rituals

A sudden blizzard has flown in. Outside my window, the north wind is howling, the maples are creaking ominously, and snow is being blown about as if a swirl of clouds were raging in my backyard rather than the sky.

Yet, while the north wind has been a constant, this morning's sky was a solid gray dullness, a drizzle of rain cast a pall, snowbanks had delved into dirtiness, and the tone of the day outdoors was seriously dark. Nonetheless, I grudgingly went out for my morning walk. Put on my rain hat rather than my toque, my light jacket rather than my purple parka. When I came back I draped everything over the cast iron rads to dry.

Last night we held a Solstice celebration at the Northern Woman's Bookstore. We shared lore about Solstice and the importance of ritual, spent time on blessings and mudras, and enjoyed bits 'n bobs tea and an array of home-baked cake and cookies. Sweeping boughs of pine and cedar graced the air.

One of the blessings we did was to close our eyes and place our hands in the "I offer my life to thee" mudra while listening to a recitation of a Celtic prayer. It was an adaption of one dedicated to Saturday. Called Eternal Life, it resonates with the evergreen boughs of the Solstice season which symbolize the everlasting, immortality.

To all who are down
unable to stand,
we bring the uplifting of Light.

To those depressed
and in the dark
we bring the uplifting of Light.

To those who are weary,
unable to cope,
we bring the uplifting of Light.

To all whose powers
wane and lose hope,
we bring the uplifting of Light.

Bring peace to the troubled,
Grant wholeness and healing.
Come, my lantern, Light of the world
Protect my soul, shine upon us in love.

But it was the Ptarmigan who stole the show. Really, everyone present was smitten by the ptarmigan and the idea of taking ptarmigan steps in the snow.

Deliberately. One determined step at a time. A bird of endurance. A bird known as the expert in conserving energy. That prefers to walk rather than fly, to conserve its energy for what really counts -- like surviving the winter!

The Ptarmigan grows feather-covered feet in winter. It dons white furry boots for its deliberations with snow. Sounds like the source of mukluks, I think!

The Ptarmigan changes colour, adapts to the seasons. Doesn't always use the same strategy. In winter it is white. Of course. In summer, spackled brown and gray. The male and female are gender-benders, i.e. very similar in appearance. Except for mating season when the male grows orange combs for eyebrows!

This photo is not of Ptarmigan steps in the snow; rather, pigeon steps, crow, perhaps squirrel. Ptarmigans are much more north than my home. These steps in the snow are found by the watering hole in the creek under the bridge. A language in snow, if only I could read it.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter Solstice

Today is Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. Tomorrow marks the turn away from the dark night of the soul. Each day the sun will now stay a little longer in the sky and climb a little higher. When you live in the north you can track the orbiting and tilting of the earth by simply watching the sun as it dances with the dark.

Because I walk along the same paths each morning, I see the sunrise of summer slowly shift from the left of Nanabijou's head towards the feet. Unlike summer, when you can lie on the grass and be blinded by the sun directly overhead, in winter the sun skirts low in the sky, casting long dark indigo shadows across the snow.

Known by many names, Winter Solstice is a constant in the north, unlike the month of December, which is a new invention. From the Latin 'decem', meaning 10, December is a vestige of the 10th month of the old Julian calendar of the Romans. January and February were added later; then the Gregorian calendar took over. This calendar making is of Greco-Roman history and its philosophical / epistemological fall-out, as there are many, many names and ways of marking this time of year.

The time that corresponds with what we now call December is also known as Full Long Night's Moon, Moon of the Popping Trees, Evergreen Moon, Winter Moon, Her Winter Houses Moon, Ka Ha Ka (Kiakh), and many other names. I wonder what Joulukuu was called before Christianity? Joulukuu (Finnish) literally translates to "Christmas month" which speaks to its renaming into Christian thought. But "kuu" (moon in Finnish) shows that the old moon calendar couldn't be wiped out for good! But I wonder, what was Joulukuu before the proselytizers did their trick?

Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the waxing light, when the dark half of the year yields to the light half. Darkness slowly retreats as light is reborn. The darkness living in our spirit is pierced by the slow seduction of the sun as s/he rises in the sky (the sun is figured as both male and female, depending on your cosmology!)

It's no wonder all sorts of celebrations were dreamed up to mark this transition to enlightenment. The moon of December is a time of giving thanks for our blessings, for the blessings given to us that we must send out again into the world to those in need. It is a time of hope and healing. Moon of resilience. Moon of endurance. Moon of resurrection. Moon of protection.

The month of the Snow Queen. The honoring of Bruna, the Roman Goddess of the winter season. Tonantzin, our dear Mother. Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sacred 7 days before and 7 days after Winter Solstice of the Halcyon bird. Rebirth of Spider Woman and Hawk Maiden. Ariadne. Artemis. Athena. Dedicated to Epona, the Celtic Mother Goddess of horses. Frey and Freyya.

A time to drink hibiscus tea. Meditate for world peace. Light candles of all colours, but especially white and red. Dust wheat stalks with flour; lay them in a basket. Burn bayberry incense (also known as myrtle). Hang sacred holly in the house to invite the snow faeries in (be sure to remove it by Feb 2nd!) Breath the scent of cedar and pine. Feast with friends and family. Reach out to those in need. Sip cider spiced with cinnamon and cloves. Make a toast to the trees.

Take ptarmigan steps in the snow*.

* visit Rauna Kuokkanen's blog for more about bird steps in snow!

Monday, December 17, 2007

A wash of pink

My home exists in multiple places. My home is an old Victorian house with a female soul. I call her Virginia. She will be 100 years old next year. She would have been built in the summer. She faces southeast, the Lake. Once, in the winter, I found old clothes stuffed into the cracks of the basement walls. A woman's turn-of-the-century home-sewn wool skirt. She would've been a size or two smaller than me, and much shorter. A child's jumper. A toddler's sweater, its elbows patched. A pocket (large) from a man's navy and green bathrobe!

This was before pink insulation and blue foam insulation. Not very effective in keeping the draft out (which was why I discovered these clothes of the original owners), but at least not carcinogenic like the blue polystyrene foam insulation that entombs just about everyone's house these days (that is, if you live in the north).

There was also crumpled up newspaper stuffed in amongst the clothes. The Toronto Globe from December 29th, 1910. Funny, it was December 29th when I went down the stairs to once-and-for-all get rid of that draft! Probably exactly what the woman of the house had done many years before me, calling for her daughter to go get those old clothes that they never wore any more.

My home is this house. This house full of my family, food and books. With a peach-faced lovebird and a goldfish slowly changing colour. My home is warm, has running water that comes out of a tap, flush toilets, heat. Windows. I feel safe in my home. There is no violence or drunken arguments in my home. There is no rudeness or swearing or belittling in my home.

My home has walls covered in large red flowers, a black bear in a midnight blue spiral, Finnish women washing clothes at the river, bluejay and grosbeak feathers, a sura from the Koran stitched in gold calligraphy on black velvet, a tin mirror from Puebla, pansies from Margit's backyard. My home has copper plates from Iraq, brass plates from Lebanon and papyrus from Egypt with Hathor's cow headdress. Tutankhamen sits on a shelf. An angel pipes a tune. Over my right shoulder, Van Gogh's bedroom opens to another place, not here.

My home is open to the outdoors. From my dining room window I see starlings and sparrows and chickadees crossing each other in the bird intersection, the open space of our yard. I see red berries in the high bush cranberry caroling in the snow, a blue spruce imperial against the wind, a juniper, moonstruck.

My home is a place of food, friends, creativity, of debating and discussing, of deep conversations, of critical thinking. Very little small talk fills the air. My home is a place of giving thanks, of blessings. A sense of humour, surely.

My home is also found in the outdoors, in the fresh air. In the silence of morning. In the crunch of the snow underfoot along the creek, along the lakeshore. My home is the opera of an open sky. A wash of pink on ice. Nanabijou on the horizon, eternal.

Underneath the ice, below the waves of Superior, glacial meltwaters lie undisturbed for tens of thousands of years. A million stars above bear witness. Above and below, blackness. The primal deep. The end of each beginning, the beginning of each ending. Unending.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

winter whimsy

whimsy, hwym' ze, wim' - ze,
1. an odd or fanciful idea; a whim
2. a quaint or fanciful quality
[probably from whim-wham, fanciful object]
3. a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation especially in writing or art

whim, hwim, n. [probably akin to Icel. hvima, to wander with the eyes; Sw. hvimsa, to be unsteady; Dan. vimse, to skip about. Comp. also W. chwim, motion.]
A sudden turn of the mind; a freak; a capricious notion; a kind of large capstan worked by horse power or steam for raising ore, water, etc., from the bottom of a mine.--whimsical, hwim'zi kal, a. full of whims; freakish; capricious; odd in appearance; fantastic

Friday, December 7, 2007

A reflection on colour

if you are living among e.pulcherima and bouganvillea, the soft yellow and pink of yesterday's sunrise pale in comparison to the colours rioting in your landscape.

During early winter in northwestern Ontario, and in other northerly landscapes, the colours that nurture us in the daytime tend to come from a rather limited palette -- blue light and dark, a dash of black-tinged forest green, whole fields of stark white, an abundance of gray, and simply brown, plain old sparrow brown. Pinks and yellows are found only in the sky, and even then only fleetingly.

This winter washing out of colour brought the film Gabbeh to my mind. It is an Iranian film about a carpet. Well, not really a carpet but a gabbeh, a handwoven tapestry/mat that is made by the nomadic women and girls of Iran. Each woman's history is told on her personal gabbeh, as she "writes" down what she sees, what is important to her into the pattern of her mat. Each woman's emotional life as part of a collective of people and as embedded in a (moving) landscape is written down onto the mat. The mat serves many purposes. It is a book, a photo album, a diary, a newspaper, an archive, an heirloom, a place to sleep, to eat, to dream. A bed. A kitchen table.

The colours in the movie are incredible, visually outstandingly beautiful. It made me reflect on northwestern Ontario, on Finland, on the north. About how the landscape and the colours that are available to colour one's life story and history are so different than the vibrancy, the shock of colour, the jewel tones and the intense reds, blues, greens and yellows of countries such as Iran. It made me think of how our forests and rivers and fields and wildflowers script a different sense of self, different stories and poems.

I also recently read 3 books on women's clothing in Saudi Arabia, Persia and Palestine. They are old books. There are a lot of photographs that focus on the sheer intricacy of designs, and the sheer beauty that women have dreamt up to make themselves even more beautiful. I got mad when I was looking through these books because they show the truth of the history of these places -- that they are places where women have developed advanced arts of fabric, clothing design, makeup, jewelery, etc that are incredibly beautiful and yet what does the West know?

Paint these places as if the women were a homogeneous glob of dark formless shapes who have no sense of feminine beauty or the female body or form. This is TOTALLY WRONG. The history of clothing that I have been reading shows how absolutely and integrally the feminine HAS EMERGED from these places. Indeed, the western sense of the feminine is indebted to eastern women. The west has a lot to learn about what makes a woman beautiful from... the east. Part of the logic of the looking-glass world.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the arts of beauty and fashion would put any woman from northwestern Ontario in the doghouse of dowdiness. The fabrics. The colours. The jewelery. Even the veils of the past were about enhancing one's beauty, not hiding it. I think that it is only in very recent times that religion has been used and the media has distorted the historical narrative of women's arts of femininity. Really, every one should read books like these. It would change how they see "those" women "over there." Whole entire histories have been completely enshrouded by the lies we tell ourselves. That is the true veil--what hangs before western eyes. The inability to see the beauty of these places. The beauty of their women. The beauty of their people. The beauty of their traditions. The inability to learn from them rather than keep trying to teach them lessons on how to westernize.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The story the Hyacinths told

is in the Third Story. In the Fourth Story you are introduced to Crow. Remember? Crow's one of the helpers in Snow Queen. Crow helps Gerda on her way to find Kai whose heart and eye have been pierced by mirror shards of unfeeling. Gerda laments that she never learned Kontti kielta - crow language - from her Grandmother who was fluent in it, but nevermind, Crow still manages to piece together help for her.

Now, the peikko, kaikkein pahempia, oikea paholainen, that is, the nasty forest gnome, of the worst kind, a real bad-maker, had made a magic mirror of topsy-turvy. Everything good and kind and beautiful changed to evil, nastiness, and terror in the peikkon peili, the troll-gnome's mirror. The Snow Queen starts when he drops it and it splinters into a million bits. One flew into Kai's heart and one into his eye, sending Gerda off to look for him. Crow sends Gerda on her way to the North, to the Snow Queen's castle of ice halls, to rescue Kai.

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favourite fairy tales. It is one of the few Western fairytales where all of the females are strong and do the action. In The Snow Queen the little girl is "the prince" and goes to rescue the little boy. Talk about topsy-turvy! Even in my young not yet feminist mind something drew me to these strong females. The little girl Gerda meets powerful older women who help her, and animals, too. She talks to the animals, even kisses them on the mouth! Of course, it depends on which version you read and there are many, some much better than others. The trick is, each story is made anew in its re-telling.

Take Hans Anderson, the Christian, for example. He did not "write" The Snow Queen. This old story of the Grandmothers (who materialize in it numerous times) was in existence long before Mr. Christian's pen. Even his Christianizing couldn't wipe out the vanha, vanha vaimo, that is, the old, old woman.

I remember reading The Snow Queen in my Grade 1 reader. It was my favourite story because it was the only reference to my Finnish culture that materialized in my schooling here in what was then Port Arthur. There was the Snow Queen who lived up North, yes, an anglocized / Christianized version of Louhi from Pohjala, but even my unschooled eyes saw her there in the text. There was the Finn woman who tied knots for the wind. Of course, in the Finnish version she is known as ruijanmuija. Remember? She comes after the Sami woman (known in the Christian version as the Lapp woman). These two women live alone, in the margins of society. Way way up North with only the Northern Lights and animals for company.

Now Gerda puts on her special red shoes and goes to bargain with the river. Some thought the River had taken Kai. The little girl throws her red shoes into the River as a sacrifice to get her friend back. Instead, the River takes her. Caught in the current, she ends up at the taikurivaimon house with windows of red, blue and yellow. (Really, the translation of taikurivaimo doesn't work--magic making wife?)

A garden of brilliant flowers surrounds taikurivaimon kirjava patchwork house. Each flower has a story to tell. The Tiger Lily, the snowdrop...but I am going to tell you what the Hyacinths said.

The Hyacinths tell her a story about 3 beautiful sisters, who have a beautiful, heady scent floating about them. One wears a red dress, the other a blue one, and the third, a pure white dress, vitivalkoinen. The 3 sisters are dancing hand-in-hand in moonlight by the shore of a mirror-like lake. Suddenly, the 3 sisters disappear into the forest and then 3 coffins drift onto the lake.

Clouds of small star-like fireflies flit about the coffins like small hovering lights. On each coffin lies one sister. As the 3 coffins float by the scent in the air becomes even sweeter. The scent of death, sweet. So sweet.

... the hyacinths' story popped into my mind yesterday when I read the poem my friend from Sweden sent me. That sweet scent of death. Doesn't it remind you of the sensibility of Forough Farrokhzad's poems? I asked Fataneh. The gloominess, the foreboding, the hopelessness. The love of life. Its exquisite unbearableness. The dark, that fatal realization that life is like this. So unromantic. But oh so sweet.

In the language of flowers, purple hyacinths mean sorrow. The scent of death hovers like delicate, ethereal lights around the hyacinth. Purple. The colours of the 3 sisters' garments washed together.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Snow Queen flew by last night

1. back door threshold; heading out to shovel! 2. that's our car under there.
3. front door windowpane. 4. Husband taking a break from shoveling, talking with a neighbour out for a walk with her tiny black puppy that was getting lost inside the snow! (you can't see the puppy!). 5. a Chantilly lace look out the icy 2nd floor window.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

in a blink of an eye

yesterday's loss ..... today's plates of snowy glass. As I walked along the lake shore today, the plates of snowy glass were jigsawed together in a perfect symmetry. Closest to the shore, the plates were gently shifting and nestling together. It was as if the water and ice were breathing together.