faith


Today I celebrate my 50th Solar Return – the day when the sun returns to the same astrological degree and minute as the moment of my birth. This is distinct from the calendar date of my birth.

Last month I synchronistically reconnected with a most beloved friend and colleague who is an astrologer that practices Astro*Carto*Graphy. In the late 1980s I was his editor for a monthly column called “Earth Harvest” in the print journal Welcome to Planet Earth. The process of creating that body of work was some of the most vivid and enlivening time of my life.

Out of the blue in April we were reconnected after a lapse of almost 8 years and, surprise, he just happened to have another writing project in the works, this time a book collaboration with another astrologer on the interaction between Astro*Carto*Graphy and the esoteric YOD pattern. I am thrilled to be in this world again, but working with Wayne always presents a challenge beyond the words we do together.

I whine to Wayne about my “Life” and “Work” and all he does is remind me, like my father often did, that I have choices. Choices not just about what I do, but how I do it, and the perspective I take. And then he takes it a step further and reminds me that within my life I have a mathematically powered framework in motion and that this framework has certain activation points – moments in time when I can choose to push, or push back.

My Solar Return is one of those times.

Wayne suggested that I use the moment of my Solar Return to set the framework for my next cycle. And so he set me to an impossible task. What do I want for this next cycle? What have I ever wanted in life that I stood up and said “I want this!”? How do I define and frame that which I cannot, have never been able to, acknowledge?

Ah, the astrologer says, and points at the problem:
You have your natal Sun, signature of the lifeforce in you, constrained by square with Pluto – that archetypal signature of ‘complete transformation’. Translation – what you create with your lifeforce has a great potential to effect transformation in all those it reaches – for good or ill. My observation over the years is that you have a tough demeanor protecting tremendous compassion and vulnerability. You were always very careful when it comes to your own self expression. That’s not to say you weren’t brave. You were. You were easily exposed.

Well, what the hell am I supposed to do about that? It’s not like I can move a planet. No, but planets move on their own and re-relate themselves, and with Astro*Carto*Graphy, different places present different faces. Wayne points me to:
[T]he New England states of eastern Pennsylvania, eastern New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Maine. In all of these states you get Taurus Ascendants with your Sun (creative expression) in the 1st House of action, assertion, courage, identity, image, your face to the world. You can submit work to places based in these states. You can use resources from these states. You can form alliances with people born in these states. You can visit and find out for yourself. Even Montreal, Canada looks good.

But what about old Pluto, I ask, and he continues:
Pluto still squares to the Sun in this position but a look at Saturn (now in the first degree of Virgo) and Pluto, now in the first degree of Capricorn) points to an approaching season of mitigation to your Sun that will last a decade.

A decade! Now we’re back to the framing problem. What is it that I want?

Sunday was not a good day for me. It started on Saturday with a fateful viewing of Under the Tuscan Sun with my sister-in-law. She’s getting ready for a trip to Italy with her Catholic Young Workers group and someone suggested the movie. I was transported by the beauty and the green and the clean. Intelligent people talking about interesting things beyond the price of tortillas and where to buy good chicharron (fried pig skins). I took Eurail from Paris to Rome in March 1988 and have wanted to return to the Italian Alps ever since a brief stop at a border town for immigration to pass through showed me quaint streets, charming architecture, and handsome men. That flame was fanned anew by the addition of the Tuscan countryside to my imagination.

Then Sunday came and we took the mothers and daughters of the family to our favorite quaint little Mexican town – Tepozotlan. It’s famous for its church, but we go for the artisans on the plaza and the lime ice. When Miguel and I go alone, I make him take the highway. It’s a quick 20-30 minutes transport to enjoyable surroundings. Almost as good as snapping your fingers or wiggling your nose. Unfortunately, Miguel’s mother doesn’t like the highway, so we take the back roads. After two hours in Tuscany, what is usually just scenery becomes an interminable hour of traffic, road bumps, garbage, wrought iron fences enclosing more garbage, and hillsides so dry you expect spontaneous combustion.

On the plaza I arrive at an unusual vendor’s table. No chotch. No carved cactus. No huichol beadwork. No miniature pottery fountains. No Oaxacan cotton dresses. Small watercolors, signed by a very not-Mexican name, something Scandanavian with two dots over the O. I look up and see a white woman with short blonde hair. In English I ask her if this is her work and she responds to me in English. But we are both so disaccustomed to it we immediately slip into Spanish. She has a very good accent. Not a tourist. So I ask and it turns out she’s been here 30 years. Her Mexican husband died, but she stayed.

“After all this time, Germany is not mine anymore either,” Ursula says. I remember her name because of my favorite author, Ursula Le Guin. “We are not comfortable here or there,” she includes me in this “we.” She smiles slightly and nods. Knowingly.

She is right, of course, and my head spins and fills. How far do you go for love? And what kind of love? Partner love? Family love? Whose family? Love for a child? Whose child? Love of a country? Whose country? Where do you draw the line of love? If you come here because you don’t want your partner’s child to suffer his absence, like you did as a child, who are you doing it for? Her? Him? You? Your long-dead father?

If you love beauty, would you live in ugliness for your beloved? If you could create your own corner of beauty, would that be enough? If everything about the place offended your sensibilities, how long would you, could you, last? Would it be love if your partner didn’t notice your distress? Would it be love if your partner noticed, but did nothing? And if your partner acknowledged your distress but was as powerless as you, would that be enough?

And what is more important
That he be with his family?
That he be with his daughter?
Even in a place that is dirty and cruel?
Or that you live surrounded by beauty?
By peace?
In balance with the earth?

And if you rescue a starving cat,
or a ridiculous dog that adores you,
or both,
Does it make a difference?

I went to bed early and passed Monday in a funk, the pressure of framing something good from this conundrum too big for me to think about anything else.

But then this morning I arise at an unearthly early hour to prepare for that appointed moment of framing. The smell of gardenias weaves through my darkened kitchen. At my desk I notice two more blooms unfurling on my Lily of the Nile. Slipping over the edge of the pot, a long solitary stem ends in a four-leaf clover. This is the third time such a wonder has sprouted from this pot – June, December, and now May – it is becoming a regular six month cycle. It is the Divine finger pointing directly at me. Repeatedly.

“You,” it says, “what do you want?”

And I confess to myself that all I really want is to be creative and to be supported by the Universe in that endeavor. Like this abundance of flowers that now inhabits my home, I want to allow my nature to open forth from within me and express itself in beauty. So I open my mouth, state my desire to the listening sky, see that it is true, and plant that Seed.

I turn back to the clock and the appointed moment is past.

When I was three, my dad was in Strategic Air Command and we lived in a trailer park not far from Beale Air Force Base in Northern California. My mother was a 41 year old homemaker. But, apart from the presence of my two adult half-sisters, she had a life before me that I knew nothing about.

My bedroom in the trailer was a snug little nest. In retrospect, I think it was a walk-in closet. We lived in a single-wide of standard length for those years (meaning short) and my “room” was across the hall from the bathroom. Entering my door, there was a closet with sliding doors on the left and on the right was a wide built-in chest of drawers with a ladder to one side that gave me access to my bed on top which was just the right size for three-year-old me.

My mother sewed a bedspread, pillow sham, and curtains for my little nook. On it she drew freehand perfect replicas of Rocky and Bullwinkle and embroidered them. This set was my pride and joy. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle and even at three years old I loved it that my mother was so creative – and all for me!

When I was five, my father got transferred to Travis AFB. We sold the trailer and moved into a real house with my own bedroom. When I found out that my mother had left my bedroom set in the trailer I was crushed. I felt deeply betrayed and eventually told her so just before she died 27 years later. It was a tearful moment for both of us.

Through the years I came to learn that my mother had been a seamstress before she met my father. She sewed not only my bedroom set, but virtually all of my clothes, and hers as well, until she went to work as a nurse when I was five. She could look at any article of clothing and recreate the pattern perfectly. But that wasn’t her secret.

One day I was telling my father about my bedside conversation with my mother about the lost bedroom set and his comment sent me reeling.

“When your mother was young, she was a very good artist, but when she married your sister’s father she stopped drawing and went to work at the drycleaners. I think she missed it terribly.”

Once again, the sense of betrayal rose in me like a hot tide.

I had inherited my mother’s artistic talent. In elementary school, the teachers always posted my work on the bulletin boards (this was before they started posting everybody’s work). Throughout my youth I won school and community competitions. I drew every matchbook cover I could find – and they were plenty since my folks were heavy smokers. I drew entire wardrobes for Veronica and Betty. I designed and landscaped houses.

My mother never acknowledged my talent. Her motto was, “Learn how to type. Secretaries don’t have to do any heavy lifting.” When approached directly with my work her standard commentary was, “Artists never make a living.” Being a child of the Depression, born in 1920, my mother never recovered from her survival mentality. Art was a luxury she could not afford – and neither could her children.

I moved out on my own when I was 17 and when I was 22, having never taken a drawing class other than two weeks in my 9th grade Beginning Art class, I applied at California College of Arts and Crafts and was accepted without having completed even any basic community college courses on the basis of a portfolio of nudes, anatomic studies, and portraits I had drawn and an interview with a member of the Fine Arts faculty. But I never attended. CCAC had only day classes. I would have to quit my job. I was young, couldn’t qualify for financing, my mother was poor, and my father’s wife refused to provide me their tax returns for financial aid to review. I felt totally alone and overwhelmed. I gave up and went back to being a secretary.

Tonight, approaching my 50th birthday, I saw a movie called August Rush, about a child music prodigy, born of talented musical parents and given up for adoption at birth, and it reminded me of the talent that my mother abandoned and that I abandoned. Granted, neither of us were prodigies like this boy, but what is it that allows (forces?) women in particular to cut out their hearts in order to carry their children?

I don’t even have that excuse. I am childless by choice because I never wanted to be the sole support of a child like my mother was after my parents divorced when I was nine. So what is the difference between me and this boy?

I believe that this boy could hold onto his passion specifically because his parents weren’t around to discourage him. He may not have had anyone to encourage him during his very dark early years, but he also did not have someone he loved and looked up to telling him to forget about it. He held on to his passion because that was all he had.

In contrast, I had a mother I loved and a father I adored. My mother actively discouraged me and my father let his wife be the passive-aggressive controller of my education. Their refusal to acknowledge my passion was a refusal to acknowledge me. My invisibility became a reflection of my self-worth until I was entrenched in the 9-5 office world and it was too late to do anything about it. I did not have enough faith in myself or in the world fight it out for my own cause.

I know my mother did what she thought was best and, frankly, I have done well for myself in the corporate world. I don’t have to do any physical heavy lifting and I haven’t been a secretary for many years. But it does not satisfy my heart. My soul is left wanting. I buy art supplies and they sit unused. I lay ceramic tile and vinyl flooring in strange and beautiful patterns. I design my own home and decorate it eccentrically. I draw one perfect piece every 5-10 years just to be sure I still can. But it hurts so deeply that I let it go and submerse myself in Work again.

My mother retired in her early 60’s but never did return to her art before lung cancer consumed her at 71. I work 60-hour weeks at a start-up company and think daily about Grandma Moses. In the meantime, every child I come in contact with I encourage them to do what they love. If they’re artists, I keep a stack of bargain basement supply boxes filled with markers, acrylics, crayons, pencils and brushes for gifting.

And I don’t tell anybody to give up their passion to become a secretary. Ever.

Last Saturday night, I was inspired.  I wrote for three hours straight.  It was a beautiful piece about god babies and mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, wise kings and day old gifts, local celebrations, music, and my husband’s disappeared daughter.  Then something happened to my computer as I was switching between the Visual screen and the Code screen – and in the fraction of a second before my hovering mouse clicked on the Code tab, I noticed the Save and Continue Editing button, as if lit from within – but it was too late.  The mouse clicked.  My screen froze.  And three hours of eloquence and damn fine research got flushed into cyberspace.

 Tonight I’m coming off a 16 hour work day – and there’s nothing left to wring out of this rag right now.  I’ve backspaced over typos almost as many strokes as I’ve moved the cursor forward just writing this far.  Time for bed.  Tomorrow will still be Saturday and maybe I’ll get something solid down after the sun comes up and goes down again.

The day after Miguel’s daughter was sequestered by her mother, Miguel got sick and a day later I came down with one of my lung-racking colds. I had to attribute it to the stress of the situation; there was just no other apparent cause. We spent most of the remainder of the week in bed, sweating it out; me sleeping with my head covered to breathe warm air, and sucking on an asthma inhaler in hopes of warding off pneumonia. Miguel recovered quickly but by December 6th I was only barely better enough to fly and we trundled off to Puerto Vallarta with our advance-purchased plane tickets.

We received the best news of all that morning before leaving for the airport – Miguel’s persistence had paid off and he was allowed to drive his daughter to school that morning, and she announced that her mother had decided that she could visit her dad anytime she wanted to. With that good news we flew to the coast with tranquil hearts to accompany our seven boxes of medication.

The warm beach weather was a blessing after Mexico City’s 40 degree nights. The first day I was still coughing much of the time, but it was not painful to breathe the soft summer air and by the next day we could sit in the sand and if I breathed slowly and not too deeply I could go more than an hour without a coughing fit. The nights were equally luscious and I could sleep all night with just one puff on the inhaler and one Hall’s lozenge – sliding glass door open and only a sheet covering us on the king size bed.

We flew home on December 10th to one of the worst air pollution days of the year in Mexico City. By the time we fought through three hours of traffic, I felt like the carnival fat lady was sitting on my chest rocking and laughing with garish rouged cheeks. But the emotional stress was gone and Miguel’s daughter announced the next day that there was no school on Wednesday, the 12th, and she wanted to spend the day with her dad.

December 12 is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  La Guadalupana.  On December 9 in 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Indian Juan Diego on the hill at Tepeyac, where the Aztec people had revered the goddess Tonantzin. Of course the local Spanish bishop didn’t believe a word of it and demanded a sign – twice.  So on December 12, Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and the Virgin gave him the proof he asked for – She instructed him to gather flowers despite the fact that it was winter and out of season for blooming. He found wild Castillian roses, gathered them in his plain cape (called a tilma), and when he spilled them out in front of the bishop the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on the cloth.

Upon recovering his composure, the bishop immediately built a shrine on the hill at Tepeyac and La Villa, as it is endearingly referred to today, has been an international sacred site since the first papal recognition in 1754. Amazingly, the tilma, a cloth with a natural lifespan of about 30 years, has survived intact for almost 500 years, unscathed by a 1921 bomb that destroyed the shrine, and recovered from a 1791 ammonia spill which caused a large hole that inexplicably disappeared within two weeks. And the image of the Virgin has remained bright while all the paintings around it have faded and grayed with the years.

The miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe has not been without controversy, of course, but once an image comes to represent the identity of a nation it’s like trying to stop waves from breaking on the beach. Modern popes have seen fit to firmly establish her place in the Catholic Church by recognizing the Virgin of Guadalupe as the “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas” in 1945, the “Patroness of the Americas” in 1946, the “Mother of the Americas” and “Mother and Teacher of the Faith of All American populations” in 1961. For the effect of his vision and for his humble and devout example, in 2002 the Indian Juan Diego was canonized, becoming the first indigenous American saint.

Modern Mexicans celebrate this feast day in the same way they celebrate all the saints’ days – with fireworks and street fairs and pilgrimages.  But in a bigger way. The fireworks and fairs start on or before December 9th.  Many schools, offices and businesses are closed at least on the 12th, if not the entire count of days.  Many of the pilgrimages start weeks in advance with people leaving small towns in the far provinces to walk all the way to La Villa, the site of the two basilicas that mark the spot of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego now situated in the northern suburbs of Mexico City, in time to arrive on the 12th.  Those neighborhoods that don’t make the pilgrimage to La Villa will remove the statue of the Virgin from her public niche and make a pilgrimage through the neighborhood each night, singing hymns as they walk, stopping at a selected home to pray, followed by eating and socializing. The host home sets up an altar to receive the neighborhood icon and the Virgin’s presence in the house for the night is said to bring great blessings to the family. The next night the neighbors return to remove the Virgin, carrying her through the streets singing to the next host house.

There are actually pilgrimages to La Villa all year round.  Each neighborhood and market and individual business has a saint, frequently the Virgin of Guadalupe, and each year on an anniversary date of the locale the members of the community walk to La Villa from however far the locale may be – often walking days or weeks, carrying a statute of the Virgin of Guadalupe, usually atop an altar. Arriving at La Villa, it is common for the pilgrims drop to the ground just inside the entry gate and cross the interior plaza to the doors of the main basilica on their knees.

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has often and accurately characterized the relationship of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Mexican people in interviews over the years, saying that “…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” And that “the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. She is the only true reality in Mexico. She is all that people really believe in.” I would add that even for non-Christian people the Virgin of Guadalupe can be a powerful touchstone that, despite her very Catholic proclamation, does not carry the spiritual contamination of organized religion. Indeed, the acclaim of the Virgin of Guadalupe goes beyond religion and, for many, affirms in a far more profound manner than dogma the true spiritual nature of life and the abiding presence of the Divine.

I first met the Virgin of Guadalupe on a flight from Seattle to Mexico City, January 19, 1999. The woman sitting next to me had a large laminated metal pin on her sweater of the most beautiful image – a dark haired woman surrounded by golden rays, wearing a cape of deep blue covered in stars, standing on a crescent moon sustained by an angel in a cloud of red roses. I was captivated by the image as we talked casually and near the end of the flight I couldn’t help asking her where she got the pin, hoping to find one for myself when I returned to Seattle. I still remember the radiant way the sandy-haired woman smiled at me, the pins were not for sale, they were from her church and she was traveling with a group on their way to see the Pope in Mexico City. She unpinned the trinket and handed it to me, “Here, take it,” she said, “the Virgin of Guadalupe will travel with you.” When we stood up to deplane, I looked around and the entire rear of the plane was populated by sweaters and jackets bearing the same pin.

Within the hour I had met the man who would become my husband.

Almost a year later, on January 1, 2000, I made my first visit to La Villa with my future in-laws. Seeing people, young and old alike, walking on their knees in the plaza shocked me, but there was not a pained expression anywhere and teared faces glowed with peace and hope.

The main basilica, with an interior capacity of 10,000 and extended capacity in the atrium for 40,000, was a river of people flowing through the building – down the side aisle to mount the moving walkway that passes below the tilma mounted behind the altar, through the atrium where humble religious items are sold by nuns, in the shaded entry where the padres stand on boxes and sprinkle holy water across the people holding up metal icons, cloth scapulars, beaded and wooden rosaries, bare hands and wriggling babies, to receive the wet blessing. It was the only time in my life I’ve been in a dense crowd without feeling oppressed.

From the basilica we climbed the wide concrete stairs to the old chapel on Tepeyac hill. Half way up the hill we stopped to toss coins into a fountain. Mine landed in one of the small volcanic bowls – my sister-in-law urged me to make a wish quickly. I wished for what all soon-to-be-brides wish for – but not really believing the luck was for me, non-Catholic, non-religious, non-Mexican.

But every wish of that day has come true, tenfold.

I have lived in Mexico for just over a year now. I am still not Catholic. I am still not religious. I am still not Mexican, despite my in-laws assertions to the contrary. And yet I know that the Virgin of Guadalupe has welcomed me into her spiritual home. I know that the words attributed to her are speaking to the motherless child that I am:

Am I not here, I who am your Mother?

Are you not under my shadow and protection?

Am I not the fountain of your joy?

Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?

So this year, on the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Miguel and his daughter were reunited and played late into the evening at the local neighborhood fair with his sister and niece and nephew; riding the wheel of fortune, eating cotton candy and tacos, throwing balls for cheap ceramic piggybanks, watching the giant fireworks tower.

I stayed at home and worked as much as I could between napping and coughing. But it was okay. Our dog Chispa, a chihuahua greyhound mix, is terrified of fireworks and on this festival day they started promptly at 5 a.m. (yes, in the morning). Every time a round would go off on our street I would hear the soft click of her nails on the floor as she came straight to my chair, waiting quietly to be held and protected. In order to continue working I would tuck her into my fleece vest and zip up just under her chin, where she would promptly fall asleep and snore. And I would look over at my pin of the Virgin and think: Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?

The day after I wrote that last post I found an essay I’d written for the 50th anniversary of the “This I Believe” project.  It’s called “The Rock and The Hard Place: An Essay on Faith and Change.”  I never submitted it because it’s about three times too long.  But, it was just what I needed to find the day after my last post because it made me remember what it is that I truly believe. 

“I believe that there are only two motivators in life – fear and love.”

That’s what I wrote in 2005 and that’s what I believe today.  In 1991 I saw a movie called “Defending Your Life.” The premise is that life on planet Earth is dominated by fear and the goal is to live beyond your fears. If, after death, your life shows that you overcame your fear then you get to “move on” to become a member of the greater universal community. If not, you repeatedly return to Earth until you become suitable material for universal citizenship

In the movie, Rip Torn plays Bob Diamond, the defense advocate for a person who had died, Daniel Miller, played by Albert Brooks. Bob explains the situation to Daniel: “Being from Earth as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.” Daniel still doesn’t believe it until Bob makes it personal.

Bob Diamond – “Did you ever have friends whose stomachs hurt?”

Daniel Miller – “Every one of them.”

Bob Diamond – “It’s fear. Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything. Real feeling, true happiness, real joy, they can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy you’re in for the ride of your life.”

I’ve decided to step out of the fog and onto the rollercoaster and ride Mexico for all it’s worth.