The turn of the calendar

Meldon Hill, Chagford

Chagford, New Year's Day 2018

Here in Chagford, the new year begins on a quiet, misty morning with sheep on the hills...

A neighbour's sheep

...ponies the fields...

Dartmoor pony

...and Tilly at my side, as always.

Hound on hill

On New Year's Day I'm always reminded of my favourite quote from L.D. Montgomery's Ann of Green Gables: Ann's practical and cheerful assertation that "every day is a new day without any mistakes in it yet."

My love of waking early is grounded in a similar attitude: each day begins as a bright clean slate and is thus an opportunity to work a little better, live a little better, perhaps make fewer mistake this time. (Or, as Samuel Beckett advised: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") Stepping into a new year is just the same, but a larger scale. It's a brand new year, with no mistakes in it yet.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

Kestor Valley

New Year's Prayer

Sheep with leaf jewelry

I've had some very kind requests to re-visit last year's New Year post: a reflection on the Pennsylvania Dutch folk customs my mother practiced on New Year's Day...and why she clung to them so tightly. You'll find the the piece here: "On the New Year and fresh starts."

The poem in picture captions above is from Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye (Far Corner Books, 1995). All rights reserved by the author.


Happy Winter Solstice

The title of this magical animation by paper cut artist Angie Pickman refers to the winter solstice, but it's also symbolic of other "long nights" we face in life: a mental or physical health crisis...a period of grief, hardship, or trauma...or the political situations unfolding in Westminster, Washington DC, and other troubled places around the world.

"We are always on a journey from darkness into light," the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us. "At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. You lived the first nine months in there. Your birth was the first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born of darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover the balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm."

Copyright by Karen Davis

In the mythic sense, we practice moving from darkness into light every morning of our lives. The task now is make that movement larger, to join together to carry the entire world through the long night to the dawn.

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

The art above is"The Spirit Within" by Karen Davis (UK); "Stray" and "Capturing the Moon" by Jeanie Tomanek (US). The video is by Angie Pickman (US); go here to see more of her work. The quote is from Anam Cara (Bantam Books, 1997) by John O'Donhue (1956-2008, Ireland). All right to the video and art above are reserved by the artists; all rights to O'Donohue's text are reserved by his estate.


The Folklore of Winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

I'm been asked to re-post this piece on the tales and folk customs of winter holiday season, so here it is:

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family...carried now to England and passed on to our daughter, who may one day pass it to children of her own.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women of the past generations as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts (all of whom have passed on now)...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhain have passed. In previous centuries, throughout the countryside families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand.

In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world.

Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

The Snow Queen by Charles Robinson

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate, full of all the magic of home and hearth, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur RackhamThe paintings above are by three great artists of the Golden Age of Book illustration: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Charles Robinson (1870-1937). You'll find titles in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Flowers on the kitchen windowsill


Bunny friends, T WindlingI've always loved the idea of a holiday dedicated simply to being thankful for the good things in our lives. "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life," writes Melody Beattie. "It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."

On this Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for readers -- for all who share my love of books, and make it possible for writers to keep on writing. Especially for you, dear people: for those who read every single Myth & Moor post, and those who drop in just once in a while; for those who share thoughts and poems in Comments section, and those who prefer to just read and stay silent; for those who come here for discussions of books and art, and those who really just come for Tilly (and I know, via the mail I receive, that there are quite a few of the latter!). I'm grateful for every reader here, and this is for you.

Here are a few of the other things I'm grateful for, today and every day:

Thanksgiving poem, T. Windling

Me and the hound

Leaf border

Pictures:  The drawing of a bunny girl and friend is from one of my sketchbooks. The picture of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Related posts: "The secular sacred" and "A democracy of species."


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool on Dartmoor

This week, with Halloween and the Days of the Dead just ahead of us, I've chosen songs of ghosts, revenants, and the shadowed border between life and death....

Above: "Imagination: There Was Once a Man..." by Aiden O'Rourke (co-founder of Lau), who explains:

"It all began with short stories. James Robertson, one of my favourite Scottish authors, wrote a short story every day for a year, and each story had exactly 365 words. I loved reading those stories: a daily dose of poetry and wisdom. And I loved the writing. The language is emotional, concise, apposite. Somehow the words and the pacing of the stories felt musical. I was intrigued by the discipline of setting such a quantifiable daily creative ritual. Would the same be possible in music? In 2016, I decided I would take on a similar writing challenge each day for a year. I told James and he replied, 'Don't do it!' then suggested I give it a month and see if it drove me mad. By 2017, I had 365 new tunes, each one linked to a story from James' collection. There's no doubt the tunes are based in Scottish folk music; that's my backbone, the place I come from, the traditional language I love. There's a parallel with James here, too, because he loves old Scots words and tales."

O'Rourke's story-music appears on the album 365: Volume I, released earlier this year, with a second volume forthcoming. In the video above, he's accompanied by keyboard player Kit Downes; and by James Robertson himself, reading the uncanny tale that inspired the tune.

Below: "Fair Margaret & Sweet William" (Child Ballad #74), an old, old song of love and ghosts performed by the great English folksinger June Tabor. The ballad appears on her excellent album An Echo of Hooves (2003).

Above: "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," based on the 17th century Irish poem "Táim sínte ar do thuama," beautifully sung by Dominie Hooper from Band of Burns. Dominie grew up here in Chagford,  dazzling us all with the power of her voice since she was young.

Below: "Wife of Usher's Well" (Child Ballad #79), performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. In this song, a mother longs for her three dead sons to return to her...but when they do, they come as revenants, still bound to the land of death. The ballad is rich in folk traditions about what the newly dead may and may not do, and how the living may safely interact with them. Polwart first recorded it for her marvelous collection of ballads Fairiest Floo'er (2007), but this fine version appeared a year later on the expanded edition of This Earthly Spell.

Above: "Death and the Lady," performed by folk legends Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, from the north of England. Norma introduces the song, explaining its history and connection to the Black Death.

Below: "The Ballad of George Collins" (Child Ballad #42), a traditional song performed in an extravagantly untraditional way by the brilliant young folksinger Sam Lee, who is based in London. The Penguin Book of British Folk Songs explains:

"The plot of  'George Collins' has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss."

In this variant of the ballad, the young man has been promiscuous with his favors and five other young women, in addition to his lover Fair Ellender, die from kissing his poisoned lips.

Above: "Kitty Jay" by Seth Lakeman, a song from his 2004 album of the same name, performed in New York earlier this year. Seth, who lives here on Dartmoor, draws much of his song-writing material from local history and lore. Kitty Jay (as the legend goes) was a poor young woman who worked on a remote farm in the late 18th century. Impregnated and betrayed by her master's son, she resolved to take her own life, and for this sin she was buried in unhallowed ground at the Manaton crossroads.

Jay's Grave at the crossroads near Manaton

Kitty Jay's grave, which is not far from our village, is said to be haunted by a shadowy figure wrapped up in a cloak. (Kitty herself? Her remorseful lover?)  There are always fresh flowers upon it, although no one is ever seen putting them there.

Jay's Grave in spring

And to end with, below:

"In a Week," a very dark, yet eerily beautiful song about the process of death, written and performed by Hozier (Andrew Hozier-Byrne). He's accompanied here by Alana Henderson. Both musicians are from Ireland.

Photograph by Alexandra Bochkareva

The three Dartmoor photographs above: An ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool, and Jay's Grave at the edge of the moor near Manaton. The last photograph, of maiden and fox, is by Alexandra Bochkareva. If you'd like more spooky songs, last year's Halloween tunes are here. For more information on Child Ballads, go here.


May Day morning on Dartmoor

Beltane Border Morris

After waking before dawn for an outdoor Easter Sunrise Service a few weeks ago, this morning I rose in darkness again for a celebration rooted in the pagan faith: a gathering of Border Morris dancers on a quiet road by Hay Tor, on Dartmoor, to call up the sun at the dawn of Beltane with the pounding of feet, the cracking of sticks, and the music of fiddle, squeezebox and drum. 

My favorite troupe (or "side," as they're traditionally called) is Beltane Border Morris: a wild and wonderful group of dancers who describe their art as the dark side of folk. This isn't the "bells and hankies and tea with the Vicar" sort of Morris dancing, it's fierce, eerie, athletic, unbridled -- invoking magic from the bones of the land and the old country lore that has not been forgotten.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border between England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have originated as a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian. It's important to remember today, however, that it is a form of masking, making the dancers anonymous and Other than their usual selves, and not intended to mimic black skin.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris 12a

Beltane Border Morris 8

Border Morris certainly is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances are tied to the seasons and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dawn, dusk, or firelight. 

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor

This morning, there were two other local sides dancing with Beltane: Grimspound Border Morris, and a small group bedecked in ribbons whose name I didn't catch. The air was cold, nipping fingers and toes, as they danced the sun up over the moor and beat out a rhythm for summer's return.

Grimspound Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor, 2018

Border Morris ay Hay Tor, 2018

When the sun was high, we said our goodbyes and made our way home across the moor, then down to Chagford through hedgerow lanes turned yellow with flowering gorse. It was early still. The village was quiet, and my own household still fast asleep. But while they slept, at the foot of Hay Tor the remnant of an ancient folk ritual ensured that another summer would come. The land had been blessed. We'd all been blessed: dancers, watchers, and sleepers alike.

Beltane Border Morris 7

To learn more about Beltane Border Morris, please visit their lovely new website. You can watch a short video from this morning here -- and from previous May Days here and here. For more information about the folklore behind May Day and Beltane, go here.

Beltane Border Morris

I wish you an abundance of May blossoms and wildflowers, fecundity in your creative work, fluid communion with our animal neighbours and all the non-human world, the lusty good luck of the Jack-in-Green, and all of the season's good blessings for growth and renewal -- especially for those of you who live on the world's other side, entering the Long Dark of the year.

I wish you stories, poems, pictures, tunes, and collective or personal ceremonies to ease the transition from winter to summer...and summer to winter.

I wish you dreams of drums, and of feather-clad dancers who move like a murder of crows taking flight.

I wish you a blessed, wild, and merry Beltane. Up the May!

Hay Tor

Hay TorWith thanks to my May Day morning companions, Miriram and Denise.


Morning has broken

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

On Easter morning, 2018:

The ancient church at the heart of our village hosts an annual Easter Sunrise Service -- held this year on the top of Nattadon, the tall hill just behind our house. I happened to wake very early on Easter morning, so while the rest of the family slept I dressed in my warmest jumper and skirt, laced on my studiest walking boots, whistled for Tilly, and headed out in the cold and dark.

We climbed through the oaks of Nattadon Woods and onto the open slope of the hill, the rain-rutted pathway grown visible now in the indigo light of dawn. Tilly raced ahead while I straggled behind, stopping often to catch my breath. During better times, the hound and I climb Nattadon almost every day, bounding up and down like mountain goats -- but health problems over the last several weeks have kept me on lower, easier trails. I was sorry to see how much strength I had lost as I wound my way slowly upward.

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

 At last we reached the top of the hill. A number of people were gathered there, sharing tea and coffee and hot-cross buns, while a small fire blazed and the sun slowly rose behind clouds laying thick on the moor. *

It touched me to receive a warm welcome, despite not being Christian myself. I thought about all the centuries in which a pagan woman like me would have much to fear from the Christian church -- and so, as the Easter Service began and I silently added my own form of prayer, I felt a bone deep gratitude for this moment of inter-faith fellowship. A long time coming (historically speaking), hard won and precious. May it always be so.

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

The hymn chosen for the service was one I love: "Morning Is Broken" by Eleanor Farjeon. Yes, the same Eleanor Farjeon who wrote The Glass Slipper and other classics of children's fiction.

I first knew the song through Cat Stevens' version when I was a kid in the '70s, and it has personal significance. There were nights back then when I could not sleep at home due to the violence in our house, so I'd sleep instead somewhere outdoors (if the weather was warm enough), or in the family car (if it was cold). I've always been an early riser, and many a morning as the sky lightened I'd sing "Morning Has Broken" to cheer myself up. Back then, I could not have imagined I'd also sing it one day in the hills of south-west England, with my neighbors around me, my good dog beside me, my husband and daughter fast asleep in our warm little house below....

Yes, reader, I cried. I admit it.

Morning had broken. And we headed home.

Easter hound, Nattadon Hill

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

* I didn't photograph the Sunrise Service, or the people attending, in respect of privacy and the sacred nature of the event. These pictures of the fire were taken afterwards, with the Vicar's permission.


Saint Valentine's Day

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima Staines
Epithalamium

by Adam Zagajewski
translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Without silence there would be no music.
Life paired is doubtless more difficult
than solitary existence -
just as a boat on the open sea
with outstretched sails is trickier to steer
than the same boat drowsing at a dock, but schooners
after all are meant for wind and motion,
not idleness and impassive quiet.

A conversation continued through the years includes
hours of anxiety, anger, even hatred,
but also compassion, deep feeling.
Only in marriage do love and time,
eternal enemies, join forces.
Only love and time, when reconciled,
permit us to see other beings
in their enigmatic, complex essence,
unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement
in a valley, or among green hills.

It begins in one day only, from joy
and pledges, from the holy day of meeting,
which is like a moist grain;
then come the years of trial and labor,
sometimes despair, fierce revelation,
happiness and finally a great tree
with rich greenery grows over us,
casting its vast shadow. Cares vanish in it.


* An Epithalumium was composed to celebrate a wedding in ancient Greece and invoke good fortune from the gods.

My valentines

Today's post is for my valentines, one of whom is off doing theatre work in Edinburgh and London right now, while the other (furry and four-footed) pines for his return.

Happy Valentine's Day to each of you too, and to all the people, animals, trees, birds, books, fictional characters and magical places you've given your heart to.

Howard & Tilly 2015

Pictures: The beautiful art above is by Rima Staines, who spreads art, music, and magic all across the UK through Hedgespoken, the house-on-wheels she shares with poet & storyteller Tom Hirons. They're out on Dartmoor for the winter months, close to their community here in Chagford, preparing for further adventures. Go here to see more of Rima's artwork.

Photographs: husband and hound, in the garden and in my studio on World Book Day.

Words: "Epithalamium" by Adam Zagajewski is from The Atlantic magazine ( June 2010).  The poem excerpts in the picture captions are from: "The Country of Marriage" by Wendell Berry, from his book of the same name (Counterpoint, 1971/2013); "The moon rose over the bay, I had a lot of feelings" by Donika Kelly (The American Academy of Poets, November 2017); "Separation" by W.S. Merlin, from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); and "Wedding Reading" by Ben Okri, from his collection Wild (Rider, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Related post: "The Narrative of Marriage."


On the New Year and fresh starts

Signpost 1

Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday (despite spending it in bed with flu again this year), and so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

Signpost 2

I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my brothers. (Boys doing housework? Unthinkable in that time and place.)

Signpost 3

At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

Signpost 4

My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

Signpost 5

As a kid I moved even more often than my mother, shunted between her, my grandmother, my great-aunt Clara or other relatives, with a couple of stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

Signpost 6

My mother died from cancer sixteen years ago, at roughly the age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only transform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

Signpost 7

 Yesterday I swept the house. Today I am the sweeping the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

Signpost 8

Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during the Christmas holiday, which we spent with our daughter in the city. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.