Night Fires: Thoughtful darkness, thoughtful light

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere. To know that, in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.

James Baldwin

After the madness of Christmas has receded, this restful quiet time is often thought to herald the new year. Various clusters of folks and traditions celebrate and mark their New Year at different times. Myself, through the deep interiority and reflection of the dark time of the year, I don’t feel the earliest beginnings of new life until somewhere between Imbolc and the spring equinox.

For now, we have the dark. I’ve been comfortable with the dark. I keep its company often, one foot in the world of the sane; one foot in the world of the insane.  One in the world of the dead and dying, one in the living.  A dependable reciprocity, a flow, a movement transports me in and out, to and from.  Then the whole Trump phenomenon and its  tendrils wrapped themselves around so many of our values, our identities, our hope, our courage. Fear grew and grew some more.   Many elders feel hopeless; many of our younger brothers and sisters feel apathy.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that many of us are feeling pretty fucked up. What to do to feel better?

Well, of course there are many things. Some good, some not so much. In this post, though, I want to speak to the reliable inspiration that I turn to every year and am never, ever disappointed: “Night Fires, the annual winter solstice play celebrating its thirty-fifth year. . . [is] a big shout of hope inside a passionate prayer for this beautiful, aching country of ours.”  (from this site)

The content–songs, poems, soliloquies, readings–changes each year but the theme remains contant:  leaving for a journey at the darkest time of the year and making your way through that darkness in order to find the light. I feel I can never do justice when I try to explain it. I just know that it is a profound generosity the spirit for the people who attend, year after year. I just know that it fills me with hope and courage and energy to apply the content I find–John Steinbeck, Naomi Shihab Nye, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carlos Nakai, Langston Hughes, and more–many traditional Inuit, Aztec, PEI, Russion, Italian songs and poems and writings.

And the music? It all touched me deeply. But maybe the most surprising and energizing, one  a 1987 folk song from a band called Oysterband. I’m a folkie from way back & hadn’t heard of it. For me its strength lies in the shift of perspective it pulls off.

 So a big shout-out to Theatre Group LTD of Middlebury  VT and all of the holy that they conjure and gather and offer to the community. Gratitudes to  Marianne and Deborah, Abigail and Shaun, Annie, Lynn, and the entire community that blesses us every year with their wisdom and creativity.



A Saturday Blessing from WholeHeart

Every morning, the call I rise to is one of “fierce love” –  to stand and act with rigor and conviction for the world we envision – one of respect, love and honor for all beings. It is with this fierceness that I welcome you to this month’s newsletter.

May you stand on earth, with roots and wings, and firmly voice what you know matters in your heart.

Sometimes, this is exactly what you need in your in-box.

Holly Wilkinson, Executive Director
WholeHeart: Living on the Learning Edge


Collective Blessings to the Ancestors


You loved ones in quiet graveyards of centuries and before,
on twisty back roads nearly disappeared from today,
where deer gather at dusk and ghosty white flowers climb with mysterious vines.
You loved ones in graves still fresh,
where the good scent of rich dirt mingles with funeral flowers.
The salty scent of slow tears
trace the lines of loss in your mourners’ faces.

You loved ones, your powdered bones lying lost and quiet, somewhere
for centuries. Grave dust, star dust.
You loved ones with your ashes settled into rough urns of stone,
resting on mantles, or lost in forgotten cupboards of no consequence.

You loved ones: listen.
Your remains gave the spark of you back to the universe.
But the glow of you still glimmers.
At last your daughters are seeking you.
We can almost feel where you are.

Contemplating tattered prayer flags whipped by the north wind,
pondering the dance of trees in the storms,
breathing deep the moss on dark forest floors.
We carry each of your stories yet still know so few.

The language of the dead is difficult for the living.
Loved ones, we pledge this to you: we are learning.

Hymn of Gratitude to a Season

I chose autumn to be born, to move from realms in spiral galaxies that swirled with uncertain and joyful dust,  from starry excitement and pulsing night skies, toward a time created from my mother’s dreaming of my heavenly, absent father.

In a night-time sleeping bag on remote national forest land, there is little distinction between the deeply wooded landscape and the vast open, indigo sky. My eyes ached with the cadence of autumn. I chose my sun sign October time to conceive my son, who carries his bruising bravely. Once, while he played near a gnarled old maple, a brilliant monarch rested on his smiling, open face. Such a hopeful face. So, was he special, to be touched thusly? Or was the monarch injured? Special, injured, intact, broken—what are any of us, then? Who interprets those signs? Who made those words?

When September brought lengthening days, my daughter was born. She perched on bed edges, bouncing to her own musical laughter from beginnings in a distant border town, where campfires and communes held her snug and safe, then she leapt into fabricated city-scapes, where lights shined bright on false freedoms. She ricocheted back to a blue-collar holding cell, and are we all prisoners, then, inside lives that we construct and inside walls that we put up then decorate prettily, to cover some inner chaos?

My own persistent feelings wash up again and again on the edges of these pages.

This is what I know of the difference between wise waiting and dangerous inertia: absolutely nothing.

On stalks supporting dark, drooping heads of the Russian sunflowers after first frost, a busy, up-and-down chipmunk reminds me:  Sun sign in Scorpio, a gift.  It enables me to live into the mystery of things, releasing the need to own answers.

A Poem Inspired by Beltane


In scattered huts and houses on the hillside
yellow lights appear in dark windows
like bonfires.

Every morning this fire festival
built from yesterday’s brushwood
fueled by good work and breakfast
and the blaze of sun
as the new day surfaces.

Whether we’ve spent the night on our knees
or at the crossroads,
whether we receive first light with celebration
or with dread,
whether we’ve drifted in dreams born by rose petals
or in nightmares.
Dawn calls to each of us, alike.

What path will you walk today?
How will you worship
in this age of dreams and visions?
Will you whisper, or call out
to all that is holy?

I will kneel in the soft dirt,
murmuring spells to the seeds.

Outlaws and Insights: On Reflective Nursing Practice

The faces of illness and death can make us small. As nurses, we become large again at the intersection with others as they experience their own watershed moments. The simple mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through windows that open, wide and brief, into others’ lives, providing us great insight into our own. I learn much about interiority in this way.

My own seasonings as a nurse and as a person are inseparable. A defining point occurred in a dilapidated New England farmhouse with a screen door that flapped in the wind. Inside, torn floral linoleum covered a crooked floor. Greasy dishes were piled in a rust-stained sink. The house smelled of chain-saw oil and stale urine. An antique hospital bed, crank missing, was in the center of the room. Clint was young, only forty years old. He existed under the radar of authority. To live outside the law, his wife informed me while I did his Hospice intake interview, required that one must be honest. This family considered themselves outlaws; this family was unflinchingly honest.

Three months later, I pronounced his death. Friends and neighbors gathered in the dooryard, keeping a crude but comforting vigil. It was one part festival, one part wake, and one part street theatre. Singular customs like these distinguished every landmark in the lives of this unconventional, eccentric community.

Clint’s three weary brothers were at his bedside before he died. These were big, tough men, not afraid of much,  yet morose with this dying happening so close to them. They strode through life, hard-drinking, hard-living desperados. Now they stood before death. Quiet. Stunned.

Their armor had failed.


But these men knew survival. The success, or failure, of hunting season determined the difference between a fat year for the family and a lean one. They told stories of the long, cramped surveillance from narrow deer stands in the numbing November cold. They could follow a buck’s trail in the woods for miles. They interpreted scrapes and smells. Their heavy bodies were graceful, feet planted carefully to avoid the snap of a twig. They predicted an animal’s behavior and its route. They tracked trails of blood, patches of hair caught on woody shrubs, and hoof prints on damp brown leaves.  The brothers waited for good shots:  a clean kill demonstrated mastery of the craft and respect for the animal, avoiding a slow and painful death. They knew all this deeply. Close to the bone. They read signs and followed inner guidance.

They knew that in his own way Clint had lived and died well.


The brothers left, after Clint’s heart stopped, charging the women with the care of the body. A feeling of tribe is associated with doing this work with others, at home.  The air in a room changes when death arrives. A hush is discernible. When death is institutionalized, there is usually a lack, a void.  Respecting the stillness, we women worked quietly together.

Into this pause, this threshold place, sudden gun shots exploded just outside the screen door. I jerked around and saw the three brothers in braced postures, the butts of their rifles gripped hard against their shoulders. Calloused hands, steady, prepared to shoot again. They aimed over the impenetrable far woods, and for a second then a third time the deafening shots pierced the stillness. They slowly lowered their guns. Quiet conversation resumed. The other women and I turned back to our work.

This ragged 3-volley salute from hunting rifles was a raw and eloquent prayer of grief and honoring, a spontaneous eulogy born of one family’s particular way of being in the world. Rich meaning and tradition are elements of every culture.


Nursing often requires doing constant impossibles. Contemplative nursing practice exists as  the underpinning to all dimensions of all care that we provide, wherever we provide it. Reflection and compassionate service hold the potential for us to change lives and to be changed ourselves. Pilgrims, all of us. Together in this land of living and of the dead.

Redemption Poem

This piece spins off from a Ben Huberman Daily Prompt post of January 17. Thank you, Ben! The first part of the question he poses is “. . .when was the last time you wrote something substantive—a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc.—by hand?” This post tells the story of my most memorable writing by hand.

The dark of the moon makes the call more believable, a storm cloud moving slow and inevitable across familiar terrain that suddenly shifts. Jolts.

“Come home. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Heart attack.”

It isn’t really my home anymore and hasn’t been my home for decades, but this time I don’t feel compelled to point it out.

The drive is too long. Vermont roads that usually give comfort or pleasure now simply twist and annoy. The entire State of New York is in the way. Despite the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania goes on forever. On one trip to Ohio, my mother was at the other end, dead. Now my grandmother is gravely ill, perhaps dying. My elders are conceding their ground. Not ready, I protest to the empty passenger seat. I am not ready.

Grandma raised me while my mother worked to support us. “Divorced” was a pejorative in Ohio in the 1950s.

Grandma taught me that you had to be good in order to be loved.

Grandma was a perfectionist.

And Grandma fed me nourishing home-made food, breads and soups and pies. She kept me warm under hand-stitched quilts and hand-made feather-beds. She taught me the value of a dollar and the worth of a bird in the hand, a place for everything and everything in its place. On rocky ledges above Ohio strip pits, Grandma taught me how to hear the floating, haunting voices of the fish. Beneath the grape arbor, she introduced me to life’s incongruencies. I was Annie Oakley and she shelled peas.

When I left home, Grandma wept inconsolably.

When I moved into a commune, she wouldn’t answer my letters.

When I was arrested for political activism, she helped post my bail then took me home and placed me under her own scary version of house arrest.

When I veered off toward addiction, she shamelessly went through my bureau drawers, my backpacks, my closet. She pushed up my long-sleeves-in-the-summer, searching, scrutinizing the soft skin of my forearms for track marks.

When I had my first child, she came to New Hampshire and cleaned my house.

When I had my second child, she came to Vermont and alphabetized my spice rack.

When I left my husband, she snarled at me in alarm and disgust: “You’ll never have a pot to piss in.”

She ironed wrinkles out of $20 bills and sent me one every birthday, every Christmas. She sent the same amount from 1968 until 2004, never thinking to take inflation or food stamps into account. Never forgetting to send the card.

When my kids did poorly in school, she worried endlessly, then sat back against the worn afghan on the back of her couch, folded her arms, tightened her mouth, and conferred the blame entirely on me.

When I came out as a lesbian, she stopped speaking to me entirely and for a very long time.

When I visited her with my partner and my mandolin, she was puzzled: which one of us did the cooking?

When we left the next week, she hugged us both good-bye, then called me back to her door and hissed into my ear, “You’re out of my will. Drive careful.”

She looked at my lifestyle, over and over, but she could hardly see me. She couldn’t sort me out. “How did you get so twisted?” she often asked. It was a question that nagged at her so much that she puzzled over it every time we saw each other. I found the question devastating, and for me the visit often ended in tears, my adult self wilted, my still-child’s heart broken. Twisted. Not a very kind word.

I met my son at the airport, and together we went to the hospital.

She was sitting in a blue recliner, newly transferred from the ICU, watching a game show. I sat on her neat hospital bed, wrinkling the bedspread. But her eyes sparked with utter love. “You look beautiful,” she said. “You look like your mother.”

She looked at my son, awkward, frightened, stoned. “You look so handsome, sweetie. You be a good boy for your mother.”

We stayed with her for an hour, and absolutely no unkind words were spoken, no recriminations made. She pulled out flannel memories from a softened heart and handed them to us with shaky, generous hands.

We promised to come back after dinner to watch Wheel of Fortune with her.

“Pat Sayjak!” she exclaimed. “I love that little Pollack!”  I had to roll my eyes, but she laughed and said how delighted she was to see us, and now she was ready to go home. Of course, she didn’t mean her apartment in elderly housing.

We were eating something fried, standard fare at my aunt’s, when the phone rang, shrill, into the neat suburban house. It was decorated by what wasn’t there anymore. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather. Young cousins, all grown up and gone.

We drove back to the hospital. Grandma was panting, in congestive heart failure. The nurse was putting in a foley catheter. I held her gently by her shoulders, put my face close, looked in her faded blue eyes. Said, “I love you, Grandma.”  She smiled. It was the sweetest smile. She spoke some garbled words. Her eyes closed.

My cousin and I sat vigil with her. Sometime after midnight, I saw her hover above her body, in the rocking chair from my little-girl years. It’s in my bedroom, still. She was half seated, half rising, trying to decide whether to stay or to go.

She died at 4AM.

I went alone to the crematorium the next day. My cousins found the idea peculiar but generally in keeping with what they had come to expect from me. What else was there for me to do but to go on listening to my truth? What else was there to do but to listen with my heart?

I dressed warmly and brought my journal. I sat in a private room in a faded floral easy chair that I dragged across the room so I could be close to her body. It was on a gurney. She still wore the same hospital johnnie that she died in. I could tell from the tiny Betadine stain on the front of it. Her eyes and her lips were shut tight. For a long time I stared at the tiny line of epoxy glue that sealed her mouth.

I sang her favorite hymns, without flinching. I sang songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, 50s tunes from my childhood. I sang Sinatra, Perry Como. Tony Bennett. Then I sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Brokedown Palace:

“Goin’ home, goin’ home / by the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / to rock my soul.”

I talked with her body for a while. Mostly I cried. It felt good to be there.

When I stood up to kiss her goodbye, some inner choreography changed. Instead of pressing my lips against her cold forehead, I purposefully placed my journal over her silent heart. Then, holding my own body at such a peculiar angle that, afterward, my back had a crick in it for weeks, I wrote. I filled page after page in my journal, which was supported by the hard surface of the shell of my grandmother’s life.

That day, my own epic redemption poem was born. It sang, it wailed, it witnessed. And it transformed.

The cover of the journal was black.  The figure of a woman, dancing, was etched on it in gold. The binding was big, fat, and spiral so the pages stayed open beautifully. I wrote with a fountain pen, given to me by a dear friend to honor a special occasion.  But to this day I haven’t found it necessary to open that journal ever again, nor to read any of the writing. It has been enough to realize, after all those decades of feeling not enough, not seen nor understood, that my Grandma loved me the very best way that she could, and she loved me so much that she waited while I drove a thousand miles so I could be there when she died.

“What the hell does someone DO that long at the crematorium, Pat?”  My cousins were waiting for me at my aunt’s house. Dinner was ready. I was late, and they were hungry.

I smiled and reached for the deep fried zucchini.



I am Looking at Blue


I am looking at blue, the color of the iced-over earth reflecting the vastness of space and indigo night. Blue, color of the winter ice that surrounds us now, companion to our waking and sleeping, and to everything in between. It glimmers and sparkles and confers such magical stories onto the trees and bushes that I have to blink, sometimes, to make certain what I’m seeing is true. Sometimes Truth is hard to see, especially when it’s in your own back yard, especially when it’s beautiful, especially when it could be dangerous.

The ice saturates the branches and twigs, burying the buds that will explode with life in the spring. Blue, the color of life receding, burrowing back into subterranean layers, surrendering to inexplicable rhythms, complex in their own patterns as is the night sky. Underneath, there is deepening, a silent infusion of essence. This is what happens in the long nights in the dark time of the year.

Something is speaking to me in my dreams.

In the morning, when the sun rises and lends its truth to the ridgeline, the golden, silver glowing begins a transformation that will stay with us all day but will never give up its solstice season color of throbbing cold, ice-blue. Life sleeps and dreams deep in the earth, and invites us to hibernate, too.

And I am pondering this throbbing cold, this ice, this blue.

Lise’s, Montreal. Blogging 101, day 9

43fbfc4ac5c4fdda2405f42d8430ad57A professor and friend of mine lives and writes in Montreal. Her brick row-house faces a green urban park. The street is lined with trees, and parking is impossible. The view from the sidewalk, all along the street, is of cats on window-sills and container gardens flourishing in the sun.

Ah, but it’s the view out the kitchen window that enchants me. Those back windows look out over a maze of complex courtyards, paintings of rich detail: a cat’s-cradle of clothes-lines that fly work clothes on Monday morning and billowing worlds of sheets sailing later in the week; back-yard balconies with routine performances by mops and brooms and the wild shaking of throw rugs. There are magic flying carpets floating in the hot glimmer of a summer afternoon; fairies conducting their fairy-business beneath the drenched leaves of a June downpour; early morning children, Saturday night couples, and Sunday solitary women.

Inside, a rich world of books suggests a lifetime affair with words and ideas. I smile. It’s like walking into another time, into a crowded back-alley bookshop where communicants seeking shelter from the rain are announced by the shallow tinkling of a delicate bell positioned over a carved wooden door.

Then all my whimsy vanishes, stopped short in the presence of shelves bearing the heavy weight of discourse from those formidable French feminists.