‘Tis the Season: Symbols, Sigils, & Alchemy

The pending arrival of the fall Equinox brings to mind all the coming colors of the fall season and reminds even the most tech-savvy among us of the persistent influence of previous ‘before times’ (and yes, there have been many). Dark times, they were indeed; before the current pandemic and all the previous pandemics, going back to even before the Black plague. Times before civilization as we know it, before recorded history, before the even written word, this time of year was characterized by symbols that are still in use today.

Late summer beings the harvest and the time of plenty before the shorter days and long lean nights of winter. We have welcomed the symbols of harvest since the time of first farms: the cornucopia, scarecrows, sheaves of corn and wheat. In neolithic times, sacred bonfires burned (and beginning in the 9th century, the Celtic festival of Samhain) attracting bugs and flying insects which in turn, invited bats to gather.

The sobering momento mori (a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’) skeleton symbol infers death, sacrifice, danger,  or (in the case of the Jolly Roger) bravery, toughness, ferocity, warning, and victory (it was not until the 1850’s that the skull and crossbones became associated with poison).

In particular, I am fascinated by the Ouroboros, the ancient image of the serpent or dragon eating it’s own tail; depicted in Egypt as early as 1600BC and meant to embody the never-ending cycle of the sun across the skies. The symbol has been been depicted in Norse, Aztec and West African cultures.Alchemists used it as a symbol of magical power by alchemists expressed in the formula, ‘solve at coagula’: an injunction to dissolve and congeal; in other words, loss and restoration of form, a basic rhythm of alchemical transformation. Plato described it as a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe — an immortal, perfectly constructed animal.  The wheel of time; the relentless march of seasons
– What goes around, comes around.
– The golden rule.
– Karma is a bitch.
– Immortality, whatever. I could go on….


I love this time of year.

On completely different topic, I got myself a new coffee cup to celebrate.

Better days are coming, you pagans.

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How Time Flies…Until it Doesn’t: Counting the Hours

I always celebrate the Solstices, but this year, the Summer Solstice had me thinking about how fast time flies. How quickly the sun fades and the skies dim. Sunset in Oregon on Solstice is after 9pm; not as late as in the Eastern time zones, but no less enjoyable. At this time of year, an hour after sunset, a walk in the gloaming with the dog  brings sights of hatchling garter snakes as they slither from green lawns across the sidewalk into the sheltering forests of parkway ivy. Bats swoop and sing their silent (to me) siren songs to mosquitoes and other winged snacks. With the first stars peeking out of amethyst skies, all is well and good.

Until it wasn’t.  Last week, the sun decided to teach us all a lesson and the full strawberry moon and high pressure in the atmosphere aligned to bring the Pacific Northwest what will forever be known as the three highest temperatures ever  recorded. A week ago, as an Oregon native, I snerked at the thought of plus-100 degree temperatures in June; I scoffed that  “some weather models” were predicting highs of 114 to 117 degrees for this weekend.  This part of Oregon just doesn’t get that hot.  Fake news, right?

Until it wasn’t

Yesterday, the temperature in Beaverton and Portland and the surrounding areas hit 108 degrees, smashing the earliest recorded highs (and highest lows) in history for the area.  Unheard of.

I daresay there were a LOT of folks last night that (like me) who don’t have air conditioning and had three fans going AND a dehumidifier.  That’s right, this is Oregon, not Arizona–no dry heat for us; the humidity has been hovering around 55%. I stayed up until midnight, checking the deck thermometer every hour, waiting for the outside temperature to drop below the 86 degrees I had managed to maintain inside, but finally had to give it up and open all the windows.

When I woke up this morning at 5am, the inside temperature inside had dropped to 83.  Outside temperature at 5am: 79 degrees.  Oy.

The dog is hot. I am hot. All my friends in Oregon are hot.  It’s hot.
So much for day 1 of a predicted 3-day event.

And today, Sunday is expected to be even hotter, with an expected record-smashing high of 114 degrees and and overnight low on the far side of 80 degrees.  And after yesterday, I now believe it.

So here I am, at 11am on Sunday morning, sitting in a tee-shirt and shorts on a sunny summer day, while the windows are locked up and drapes shut tight. Temperature inside: 86 degrees.  Temperature outside: 97 degrees and climbing.  The weather stations have posted hourly forecasts as to how long this extreme heat event will last; On Monday at midnight, the temperatures are supposed to ease off to below 80 degrees.

Only 36 hours to go.

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Reboot: You Can Always Start Over

Spring arrived yesterday. It kind of snuck up on me this time. I know, it comes every year, but after this Year of Pandemic, and being cooped up and careful and socially distanced, I almost missed it.

And I shouldn’t have. I mean, all the signs are there: birds singing so loud in the morning that you can’t sleep in, even on the weekend; the returning geese calling to each other as they fly overhead at night, their voices lifted in a soft and joyous chorus. There’s a bright aura around the daffodil blooms, and the brilliant purple of crocus and dwarf iris peeking up through frost-bitten earth. And in Oregon in particular, the grass has greened up and the drone of lawn mowers once again echoes on sunny afternoons.

The earth is waking up again. As it does every year.  The annual reboot of the planet.
And so must we, in our waning from what will be viewed by historians and generations to come as the terrible year of 2020–the year of plague and fire and insurrection and violence, tyranny, and incredible human cruelty–hopefully never to be repeated. Whether we accept it or not, we are (all of us) changed by the shared experience. Loved ones lost–to virulent virus, anarchy, corruption, and a wrenching of social and cultural convention.  Darwinism is once again invoked, and those most able to adapt have survived.

This round.

But with this dawn of the planet, and the annual waning of darkness, we all have the opportunity to do our own life reboot. Miraculous vaccines are here, soon enough (this very spring) for all to accept the gift of life they offer.  Justice is served through the courts (although the wheel turns slowly), and  murderers and anarchists alike will be apportioned their due.

For the rest of us, the wheel has turned as well. We have re-visited the lessons of our  ancestors and discovered  long-buried genes of fortitude, endurance, patience, and yes, even acceptance. As the planet slowly reawakens with this Spring, we will re-emerge as well: vaccinated, yet cautious. A bit more wary of strangers and crowds, perhaps.  Certainly better at washing our hands and enjoying the delights of being outdoors.

We saved money on gas and entertainment outside the home, and that was good.
We have a much greater appreciation for science, the medical front line professionals that work so hard to keep us well, grocery store workers, small businesses, and online shopping.  And don’t forget restaurants! Or the simple act of embracing a loved one. Personally, I think I’m looking forward to that the most.

It’s never too late to start over.

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2020 The List and the Lesson

Hoochie mamma, what a year 2020 has been. So many unimagined events, so much atrocious behavior, stress beyond belief. Like slime from a dark lagoon, the sludge not only clung to us individually, but to our communities, our states, our nation, and the whole world.

For many hunkered down at home, entertaining cat videos and streamed movies provided a brief distraction.  For me, the greatest escape lay within the words and worlds of fiction. And since I have the luxury of an entire bookcase dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, I counted myself lucky this year.  Here is my list of the most memorable:

FAVORITE NEW (to me) AUTHOR SHORT STORY: I’m not a big fan of short stories, but this year I dedicated myself to catching up on my backlog of unread collections. I read a ton of short stories, most of which were previous ‘Year’s Best’ or award nomination collections. Many of these came to me as courtesy copies, some I bought because I follow the genre.  And while I know this author personally, I had not previously read her work until I found it in the 2014 Nebula Awards Showcase. Kat Rambo’s brilliant award-winner, Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain, is an unforgettably moving story that works on so many levels for me. It is both completely alien and at the same time a parable of the human experience.  The world-building is unique and presented in a way that seduces the reader into buying into the cultural taboos, goals, and hopes of the main character, her world and culture. Hands down, this is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

FAVORITE NEW-TO-ME AUTHOR: I am always seeking out book or author recommendations at classes and conventions.  Who better to ask for book recomendations than another author? In this case, the new-to-me author is Larry Watson, and the novel is Montana 1948. This is not a science fiction or fantasy setting, but a gritty out-of-time world, where cultural attitudes were in a different place than they are today, but then again, perhaps not. This year of 2020 has forced us to face the the ugly racist underbelly of America. With an author voice that is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry, yet completely unique. Wonderful characters and an impossible situation. I will be reading more of Larry Watson’s work.

FAVORITE CLASSIC: Every year, I make it a point to read a few classics–this year was no exception, and I happened to have an excellent stack to dig into. I read two Ursula LeGuin novels this year (I think I’ve read most of them now): The Lathe of Heaven, which was brilliant, and my favorite of the two, The Word for World is Forest, which is my absolute favorite of all her books. Although I did not pick these stories for their subject matter, I cannot help but note all three previous entries have at their core a seed of racism, cultural bigotry, and injustice. Maybe it’s the year 2020 that made these tales resonate for me so strongly. I think it’s a combination of the author’s skill with characterization, world-building and the emotional depth of the tale, topped off with a resonant (and in this case, just) ending.

FAVORITE READ BY FAVORITE AUTHOR:  Choosing a single work this year from such a plethora of great reads by my favorite authors is a good problem to have.  Thing is, my tastes are pretty eclectic.  I mean, how can you compare Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (a boy, a carnival, and fortune telling) to Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun (an airline pilot & cannibals) to the American Sherlock Holmes?  I’m speaking of the amazing Robert McCammon Matthew Corbett series.  I read the first three volumes (roughly 900 pages EACH), back-to-back.  Great titles: Speaks the NightbirdQueen of Bedlam, and Mr. Slaughter; great setting (the British American colonies), and oh-so-devious plotting and diabolical characters. Some categorize McCammon’s work as horror; I wallowed in it. A wonderful, engrossing series–each one better than the last.  You can be sure I’ll be spending my tax refund on more of that series.

THE LESSON: Even within a pandemic year there are blessing to be found: Read good books. You don’t need to limit yourself to a specific genre.  There are good books in every genre.

PS: Regrettably, I didn’t see Thor Ragnarok when it was in the theaters. But watching it at home this year, I couldn’t help but think the Led Zeppelin’s 1970 The Immigrant Song is the BEST theme song ever.  Beats the Jaws theme by a landslide.

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Nuggets of Joy

As I glanced out the window Thursday night, I was struck by the beautiful colors of a zinfandel-red sunset. I stepped out on the balcony for a better look, and could see a thin crescent moon adding it’s own illumination to the scene. It was so lovely, I had to stop and take a picture. I stood there  for another 10 minutes, marveling that I could’t remember the last time I’d seen such a lovely sunset.  An interlude of quiet joy.

And three days later, that quiet joy is still with me. In spite of all the heavy hits to humanity that 2020 has brought us, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are still small joys to be found:
– A friend’s delight in a perfectly brewed cup of tea from a new electric kettle
– Catching sight of a bird or bit of nature you’ve never seen before
– A new baby, new puppy or the charmingly-naughty antics of a pair of ginger kittens

The universe continues on. The earth turns. The sun rises and sets on another day. It’s not that things aren’t tough (or even horrible) for many, but we go on. As we must. There will be no single thing that will change things for all of us, so we must look a little harder to spot the small miracles happening all around us every day. Eventually, the momentum will turn, and as with the seasons, change will come.

Until those better days arrive, savor the glorious colors of fall, the sounds of your favorite music, the smell of hot chocolate, a good story, or the gentle hand (or paw) of a loved one. Don’t forget to appreciate the little things that bring you joy.

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Word of the Days

Propaganda.

By definition, it is described as a systematic effort to use information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. According to Bruce Lannes Smith, Coauthor of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion, “Propagandists have a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these, they deliberately select facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and present them in ways they think will have the most effect. To maximize effect, they may omit or distort pertinent facts or simply lie, and they may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people they are trying to sway) from everything but their own propaganda.”

Other terms related to propaganda include hype and spin. Advertisers use it all the time; think the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ or ‘Where’s the beef? ‘ ads. The use of an admired actor or character to promote a product. Or taking a quote or data point out of context. Images (of happy families, national icons, or even puppies) can be used to imply a connotation or persuade the target audience that an idea is wholesome or patriotic. Even the media is often accused (by both sides) of being partisan, using the same set of facts to sway opinion.

Lenin defined “propaganda” as the reasoned use of historical and scientific arguments to indoctrinate the educated and enlightened; he defined “agitation” as the use of slogans, parables, and half-truths to exploit the grievances of the uneducated and the unreasonable.

Scarier terms include brainwashing, disinformation, and psychological warfare. George Orwell wrote a book about it.

There are less than 60 days to the election.

Word.

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A Learned Reflexive Response

Buckle up.

It’s automatic; so ingrained in our culture, we don’t even think about it anymore, we just do it. Like saying “please” and “thank you”, it’s a learned reflexive response. In other words, it occurs after an association has been made. We associate getting into a vehicle with putting on our seatbelt. Our hands reach for the belt without deliberate intent, even though we don’t have brains in our hands.

If you’ve been around long enough, you remember the days when seatbelts weren’t worn. When the heavy metal buckles dug into your butt and most folks stretched them out and let them hang over the edge of the seat. That was 40 years ago. In 1984, New York became the first state in the nation to require seat belts to be worn.

As someone who lived through that cultural revolution, my memories are that no one wanted to wear seat belts. They were bulky, uncomfortable and made it hard to breathe while wearing them. They were deemed by many to be ineffective; a government infringement on individual rights.

The ad campaigns started when I was a kid, and I grew up seeing commercials with slogans like these:

  • Seatbelts save lives. Buckle up.
  • Click it or ticket!
  • No Belt. No brains
  • Best gift you can give your family is YOU! Please be safe.
  • It only takes one mistake to bring us all down; don’t let it be yours!
  • Safety is a full time job – don’t make it a part time practice.
  • Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.

These slogans helped to change the driving habits of every American (except New Hampshire, which I understand does not have enforceable seatbelt laws). And they continue worldwide, in countries where the culture has not yet acquired the learned reflexive response: https://mymodernmet.com/new-zealand-seatbelt-safety-campaign/  

Sobering, no?

The facemask pushback is not a new phenomena. I’ve travelled extensively in Asia where facemasks are the norm whenever someone is sick or sensitive to pollen (or smog). I didn’t like wearing it at first either. I found them bulky, uncomfortable and made it hard to breathe while wearing them. But after 19 weeks of practicing, I have found I can wear a face mask for as long as I need to, and feel safer when I wear it in public.

Mask up.

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