Harvest 2016

We’re coming up to Harvest this week. I’ll be having friends over to enjoy a feast of locally produced food and drink, which is how I like to celebrate this sabbath: as a kind of Atheopagan Thanksgiving.

Last year, I wrote about the shadow sabbath: what happens when the events of life aren’t congruent with the metaphorical themes of a given holiday. It was a hard time of financial distress, having been forced to move from my beloved home of 18 years, and the destruction of a nearby retreat, Harbin Hot Springs, to fire.

This year is better. We found another—albeit much less beautiful—place to live, and I am employed gainfully. We have enough to live not lavishly, but adequately, and things seem to be looking up.

So I am here to express my gratitude for this year’s Harvest of friends and home, of love and food and air and water and beauty and music and all the lovely things. And for you, Atheopagan readers: our conversations on the Facebook group and here have been so gratifying to me, and I’ve learned a lot.

I’m hoping that by this time next year, I will have met many of you in person at Moon Meet in August of 2017. In the meantime, tip up a glass of something you enjoy on the Equinox, and know that I am toasting you as well. Happy Harvest!

Harvest of Ashes: A Shadow Sabbath

It’s supposed to be a time of bounty: the gardens overflowing, the grapes coming in to be crushed, the hard blue sky of autumn whispering, “hurry, time’s a-wasting.” A time for feasting with friends and reveling in sunsets; a time for sporadic hints of the wild weather to come.

But what are we to make of Harvest—of the autumnal equinox—when the crops have failed or burned? How do we celebrate plenty when we are bereft?

How, in short, do we observe the Wheel of the Year when life isn’t cooperative with its narratives? When tragedy comes at High Spring, or birth at Hallows, or joblessness at Yule, how do we continue our traditions and practices when they don’t seem to fit?

This is the riddle I am presented this year.

These seasons of harvesting have not been kind to my wife and me this year. Harvest rolls around and I am poorer, and grieving.

How do I make sense of this, and mark the passage of this important milestone of the year?

I fall back on Atheopagan Principle #3: Gratitude. I am alive, employed, housed, loved. For whatever loss there has been, still I have much to celebrate. If necessary, I must force myself to consider the glass as half full, and the wine within delicious. It is wine, after all: not poison, not acid. It is the fruit of the world, sweet and intoxicating if only I will let it be so.

But at a deeper level, this experience has helped me to see that every Sabbath has its shadow. At Midsummer, the light begins to die. At Yule, the coldest and bitterest of days are yet ahead. Even Hallows, in its solemnity, marks the beginning of our season of greatest merry-making.

Each, for its predominant yin, contains the yang.

Here at Harvest we must remember also what we planted but did not grow. What had long been reliable but now fails us. What seemed important and was lost.

If Hallows is Death in the cycle of the year, surely autumn becomes the Season of Reflection–the metaphorical equivalent of the elder years, looking back on life lived and lessons learned.

So I think that if there is any way to celebrate the Harvest of Ashes, it is in contemplation, and fasting…the very opposite of the feasting and celebration so apt to the season. This Wednesday is the true solstice, and I will forego food, pursue stillness, and seek peaceful congruity with what has befallen me.

Mine will be a shadow Harvest this year. What I have reaped is a deeper understanding of the Wheel of the Year, and a reaffirmation of my Atheopagan practice.

Not so meager a Harvest, after all.

An Atheopagan Life: Observances Around the Year (Sept/Oct)

Autumn on the North Coast of California is an odd time.

Our climate is a Mediterranean-style cycle of winter rains and a completely dry summer, and the transitional seasons are subtle in character. In fall, we experience the hottest period of the year, as while summer mornings are characterized by ocean fog that cools most days to temperate comfort, the weaker sun of September and October cannot drive the fog system so effectively. As a result, these months bring lengthy stretches of days in the nineties, parching lands which haven’t seen rain in months to what feels an aching dryness, as empty creek beds and golden-brown hills attest.

We do have oaks and other deciduous trees whose leaves turn colors in the crisp nights, and the harvesting of wine grapes and apples and pumpkins reminds us with certainty that this isn’t really summer. But as we put up apple butter and wait impatiently behind the trucks carrying tons of grapes to be crushed, the hot, arid air combines with wan light and shortening days to make for an uneasy, strange-feeling time. Insects and birds have largely finished their reproductive cycles and the nights are eerily silent, while sunsets are dramatically bloody.

That very eeriness fits well with the season’s observances I practice. Autumn is a Big Deal time of year for Pagans of pretty much any stripe, and an Atheopagan is no different. Between the bounty of Harvest and the reflection, remembrance, spooky playfulness and real grief of Hallows, there are plenty of ritual practices to be attended to and events to share with friends, if we so choose.

Here are a few of the things I like to do for those two Sabbaths. They remind me of the metaphorical meanings of this time of year, and give me a sense—however imaginary—of participation in the season’s change, of being a part of the great turning wheel of the year.

Harvest (the autumnal equinox) is easy: we invite a gathering of friends for a collective feast. A sort of pre-Thanksgiving, with emphasis on locally produced foods, of which we are fortunate to have many. We say the things we are grateful for harvesting before we dig in.

I have many ritual observances, large and small, for Hallows. I’ve been observing Samhain/Hallows rituals with the same group of friends every year since 1991. But rather than go into our traditions, I’d rather talk about the smaller celebrations.

Every year, I go to a local cemetery on Halloween, around sundown. I wander through the old part of the graveyard, appreciating the old monuments and Victorian iron grave-fences and contemplating the segregated Japanese part of the cemetery, which is still in use by the local Japanese community. I leave a small offering at one particular grave which has a beautiful monument in the form of a statue of a weeping angel. And then I go to an enormous yew tree (it must be at least 100 years old), and use my ritual knife to cut a small sprig of yew.

That yew sits on the “Underworld” section of my Focus (altar) throughout the year, where it dries. On the night of the Hallows ritual I share with my friends, I use the dried piece of yew from the previous year to light the fire, closing the circle of another year.

This is the time of year, also, that I pour rainwater saved from the previous winter into a dry creekbed. If I believed in magic, I’d say I was calling the rain back, but I don’t. I view this act as a symbolic expression of my wish that it would rain: a concretization of my hope that California’s drought will break this winter.

It’s small, ongoing observances like these that I most enjoy about my practice: regular reminders to stop and reflect that it is a magnificent world, and I am a part of its cycles and changes.

Originally posted at Humanistic Paganism