Eye roll warranted—this is one of those about hygge

1applesSometimes I feel like this is one of the most important lessons I am supposed to be learning: being content with the small things I already have. I am guessing this is true for most of us.

I have been born privileged: healthy, of serviceable intelligence, and of middle class means. From the start there were no limits to the dreams I could dream, which I took for granted.

Life didn’t turn out bad for me; on the contrary. But it didn’t lead where I was thinking it would either. I find myself at this age questioning decisions, abilities, everything, unable to find peace with my life. They call that something, don’t they?

I think there is something in these concepts that are being thrown at us a lot nowadays, of hygge (a Danish feeling of comfort and well-being)  and lagom (Swedish for “adequate” or “just right”).

This New Yorker article titled The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy gave me a lot of pause for though, because, yes, these nations are reportedly happier than other peoples, in spite of living in environments that are cold and seem adverse to any kind of joyful living. So do they have the answer? Is this it? Should we try to find our happiness in the small things that are plentiful in our days instead of always dreaming big, and often being let down over and over again?

I mean, obviously, not a very American concept, is it? The American culture has been so aggressively individualistic and proud of it that I doubt such ideas will take root here any time soon. Because for this philosophy to work, you must be somewhat community minded. Being content with little means that more of us can partake of the good life. Some of us have to tone down our aspirations in order for all of us to get a chance at dreaming at all. And I am more than fine with that. I think it’s the only ethical way to live.

When we value our lives in financial wealth, we limit ourselves to this world we already have: unhappy, skewed, stressful, violent, intolerant. We choose the path of fear and trembling because of the promise of greater rewards, which logically can only be bestowed upon few, we know too well, but we convince ourselves that we are indeed among those few, because we, each of us, are the special, chosen ones.

We end up despising the small good things that are already within our reach and invalidate their power to make us happy, because we need to stay hungry on the path of fear and trembling. The choices we’ve made as humanity are just mind-boggling, if you look at them with the right attitude.

Of course it is easier to go on and philosophize about how to solve the problems of all humanity instead of dealing with my own state of despondency. I do what I can. Now I’ll try to relax and seep some imaginary herbal tea. Because the actual instant coffee in my cup just doesn’t sound hygge enough—in the hipster and instagrammable understanding of the word. Not that I have a better understanding of it at all, which you must have gleaned by now, and which I’d never let stop me from the enjoyment of writing about it.

The day of the cuckoo

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One of my resolutions for this year had been to keep a closer awareness of the important pagan calendar days throughout the year, the solstices and equinoxes, the phases of the moon, etc. I wanted to allow a closer connection with my intuition, with the signs that are thrown my way each day. That’s how I came to learn this year about the day of the cuckoo.

The day of the cuckoo is a nature-based, pre-Christian celebration that in Romania coincides, on March 25, with a significant Christian holiday. The religious holiday is a Marian one, the Annunciation, representing the day when Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus was first revealed.

The pagan holiday, alternatively called in Romanian “the day of blessing,” represents the first time when the cuckoo’s song is heard, announcing the arrival of spring. But the cuckoo does not only herald the beginning of spring. You should count how many times you hear the cuckoo and that will represent how many more years you have to live. If you hear it on an empty stomach and from behind you, it means that your death might come this year. Young women and men can ask the cuckoo how much time until they’ll find the one they’re destined to marry, and if the cuckoo sings, then it doesn’t happen this year, but if it keeps quiet, that this is the year when they tie the knot.

They also say that on this day you can have dinner with your guardian angel (Christian vocabulary again, but not a Christian custom at all) and if the angel feels welcome to your table, it will stay close to you throughout the year. A funny custom on this day, called “the scolding of the fruit trees,” is one where people go on to check their orchards and see if the trees have buds, and if a tree is not in bud yet, then it is shown an ax and is threatened that it would be cut if it doesn’t give fruit soon.

I will not dwell on how many religious holidays seem to neatly stretch over and cover ancient customs. I feel that this was a very subversive way for Christianity to take over older belief systems without meeting a lot of resistance. In the case of this particular event, it was not only the date that was given Christian significance, but the bird itself, apparently, has found a place in Christian iconography: the images of the cuckoo appears near the one of the Virgin Mary in Portugal, for example, as shown in this paper titled “The Madonna and the Cuckoo: An Exploration in European Symbolic Conceptions” by Francisco Vaz Da Silva, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of Lisbon.

I also have a feeling that women should find the symbolism of the cuckoo empowering. While in the patriarchal framework, the cuckoo stands for selfishness, infidelity, and parasitism because it leaves its eggs in the nests of other birds, it can also be viewed as a symbol of the matriarchal lineage, the only lineage that is apparent and could always be determined with certainty.

Time of the night mære

crepuscular1.jpgAs we advance into the darkest days of the year, I start to feel the grip of anxiety and fear. It’s often my children who make me feel real, heart-stopping fear. I am afraid for them. Before children, I was almost fearless. It was youth, maybe. Youth is crazy and doesn’t think much, and you can blame a lot of unrealistic behaviors on it. Now, as a mother, I can barely watch five minutes of a horror movie and I get nightmares.

I had a nightmare recently. It was an epic one. It will go on the list of the ones never to be forgotten. My nightmares have always been very vivid and cinematic. I never learned how to deal with them properly, but I tried. I was obsessed for years with lucid dreaming, finding ways to control the dream world, and making this beautiful thing that dreams can be work for me instead of against me. Because when they turn against me they are so bad! I can never forget. There was the building with long and dark staircases, with closed-door rooms aligned on unknown corridors where I had to run and hide from what was after me. Then there was the shadowy figure with long, dark hair and and antique-looking axe who was following me in the large courtyard surrounded by tall brick walls. There was the road lined with coffins where I was the only one walking alive. There are all those ones where I cannot move when I want so badly to run, and I cannot say a word when I need to scream.

A nightmare is scientifically defined as a dream occurring during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that results in feelings of strong terror, fear, distress or extreme anxiety. The scientific community has long believed that most nightmares may be a normal reaction to stress, and they might aid people in working through traumatic events. Another theory is that nightmares and all dreams are just meaningless creations of the sleeping brain. The cortex is given random signals from the pons area of the brain during REM sleep and it tries to interpret these signals creating a whole story out of this fragmented brain activity. Science never found a way in which people could keep nightmares at bay.

My daughter has inherited my “gift” for bad dreaming, and a lot of my anxiety and negativity. I want to protect her and teach her to deal with it all better, and I think she will. But when I find myself again in the dark season of fears, I worry that I’m not doing enough for her, that she’ll never escape for good and will never become one of those adults who outgrow nightmares.

The mære (Old English), called similarly in almost every European culture (in Romanian it is cosmar from the French cauchemar, meaning “trampling demon”) is a female evil creature who will ride over sleeping people’s chests at night, causing them to feel panic and pain. The horses that the demons ride at night are found in the morning by people all sweaty and exhausted. Holed stones have been used as talismans against the mære. Actually, it seems that stones with natural holes in them (also called hag stones, or mare stones) are part of many superstitious beliefs and are seen as helpful in many situations, like treating illnesses, aiding fertility, bringing general luck.

We use many talismans and rituals to keep the mære away. Sometimes you simply have to believe. And considering the few options that science gives us, it is not surprising that we are more attracted to mythology and folklore. Those remedies might not work too well, but at least they give hope.

Now off to find a holed stone.

The dark times of the spirit

crepuscular treesAnother religious leader has been accused as having abused women looking up to him for spiritual guidance. Another woman has been killed because of religious precepts. And yet another woman is waiting in prison to be executed because of religious beliefs. And many other women are being abused and suffer extreme injustice all over the world every day in the name of religion. The amount of cruelty directed at women on religious grounds is unspeakable. I read these news and I wonder, every single time, how can women still tolerate these antiquated and thoroughly humiliating religious beliefs?

Yes, I can understand that some women cannot afford to choose their faith. I have complete sympathy and my heart aches for those women from poor social backgrounds or from cultural milieus where denouncing  their religion would leave them without family and means of subsistence. But I do not understand those of us who can afford to make a choice to move away from a belief system that ascribes them less value than it bestows to men. Unless these women are trying to change the system from the inside. Which some of us do. Some of us, like those amazing Catholic nuns who worry the Pope.

All of us, however, regardless of our situation, could think of how to take a stand in any small way we can. I think we’ve reached an age when women don’t need to perpetuate the status quo or, which happens more often than you’d think, even be among its biggest defenders. Those times are over. We know too much now. We know we can do better. We are better than that. Even if it is to just teach our daughters that there are bigger answers and bigger ideas out there and that no faith is perfect, we can still do something. And we need to do it. We need to stop this long, long chain of injustice and crimes against women. Put an end to the hypocrisy in our hearts at least, if we cannot afford to do it outwardly. Teaching our daughters and sons to doubt and ask questions and think for themselves is probably the best thing we can do and it is entirely within our power.

I can almost see an age of beautiful women’s spirituality at the forefront of world’s faith scene, when atrocities such as those mentioned earlier would not happen anymore. To anyone. I know we are coming out of this crepuscular season of faith and entering another age, of spiritual enlightenment. I just hope it happens sooner. Because there is so much unbearable darkness all around us right now.

Doesn’t seem fair to blame it all on old age

On the sexual abuse of minors by priests: “Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.” May 18, 2001.

“In the 1970s, pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children.” December 20, 2010,

On Islam, quoting  Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” September 2006

On Judaism: Under his rule, the Vatican reinstated the use of a Latin Mass that includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews. July 2007

On the battle with AIDS in Africa: “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” March 17, 2009
But,
In the case of a male prostitute, the use of condoms can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” November 2010 

On the historical violent conquest of the Americas by Europeans: “The proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.” May 2007

On the priesthood of women: Under his rule, the Vatican included “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman” among “delicta graviora” (grave crimes) against church laws, along with sex crimes against minors. 2010

Who won’t allow women to be priests

women-and-priesthood2The head of the Roman Catholic church announced last week that he won’t tolerate any “disobedience” such as talk of accepting women into priesthood. This sort of discourse sounds to me so limited, ignorant, disgraceful and unfair that I am almost choked by anger. But I am not letting that stop me. I feel that I must give a voice to women’s need for a spirituality that represents them too.

First and foremost I object to the word “disobedience.” That takes us back to the dark ages when the individual did not enjoy individual dignity, freedom and sovereignty.

Secondly, I object to the authority of the Pope, who represents for me any church leader. Under the guise that it is God, or the “divine constitution,” that we disobey, we are actually subjected to the whims and arbitrary decisions of a small group of old men from a far away place, living a sumptuous life completely disconnected from reality and from women. But they say that they know what God wants and that we should believe them. As much faith as we might have, that is pretty hard to accept. Especially when what they know of God’s will seems to be so suspiciously rooted in the thinking patterns of the middle ages. When what they know of God’s will is so unenlightened and sad that it just begs to be questioned. When what they know is that women should not speak in church, women should only listen, women should only obey and if they have a question, they should ask their husbands at home!

Religious systems have been, historically, excellent tools of power and oppression. The Roman papacy in particular has a very, very long history of embarrassments and wrongdoings. We keep forgiving and forgetting, because we want to believe. Faith is essential for most of us. As women we need faith, and we do not have much choice. We have been accepting the religious systems available to us with all their idiosyncrasies and flat-out disgraceful disregard for women. You are aware, right, that the doctrine we are asked to obey is not even clear on the subject of women being people? Having souls? There is denial about it. There is a lot of literature trying to minimize the importance of that council of Macon in the 16 century and call it a myth. But the truth is that every act and decision of the church does nothing but reinforce that so-called myth. Why else would we be forbidden to speak in the church, if not for being less than a human being? Why else would we be denied priesthood?

The truth remains that most religious traditions deny women a multitude of rights and insist on having us treated separately, in the back rooms, in submission and complete silence. As women, we should see these practices for what they are (vestiges of medieval or even more ancient laws made by men, not God) and change them. How much longer can we follow faiths that have no faith in us?

Made a magic dream pillow

 

magic-dream-pillow-2To ward my child’s sleep against nightmares. It’s a simple very simple project that made someone a bit happier to go to sleep at night.

We have a dreamcatcher and we say a spell every night before sleep to keep nightmares away. But sometimes words and talismans don’t work, so we had bring in the scents (and a new talisman). I made my daughter a “good dreams” pillow from a piece a silk from India that a friend gifted us. The pillow has a pocket with a black cat (she loves black cats) appliqué, on which my daughter now sprays every night her special essential oil mix for quiet, restful sleep. The oils I used are chamomile, lavender, bergamot, citrus and sage.

We are now fully protected. Something will have to work.

Women and spiritual leadership

Knitting-and-Books1Things come up to upset me lately and I have moments when I need to speak against them. I am usually a little coward and prefer to sit in the back, in the dark, in the shadows. Unless I am really outraged and the world starts to look like a gloomy, nightmarish place if I don’t light my little candle and hold it up high. Who knows, maybe there will be another lost soul who sees it flickering and feels new hope for a new day.

We live in a deeply religious world. I applaud that. I think spirituality can save humanity. I do. The way we choose to interpret our spirituality and practice it, however, has proven to be so potentially damaging! It makes me cry. As a woman, I have to cry even harder.

Women have been recognized the right to vote only a few short years ago — not even one hundred years in US. The great world religions of course are thousands of years old. After about one hundred years since women have been legally given the right to be part of political leadership and law making, still no such equality has been achieved inside the multiple religious systems of our world. Most religions only accept men as spiritual leaders. Most (if not all) the women who observe these religions are obviously fine with it. Because their faith is so deeply based on these rules, that doubting the rules looks like lack of faith. Many times, all we have is faith. Faith is the only thing that keeps us alive and we cannot afford to doubt our faith — for many of us it would feel like a death sentence. I know that.

Religion, the way I view it, is a system that is built around a faith. Faith is essential and beautiful in all its forms. Religions, however, are organizations with laws and politics, meant to govern the faithful. Without this distinction between religion and faith, this discussion cannot go further.

Democracy, widely accepted as the best, most enlightened form of government, is based on the idea that all groups need to be represented at the higher hierarchical level of the governing structure. There cannot be fairness without representation. How can one side know of the struggles of the other? Now, please don’t say that women and men are not that different, that men can easily represent women’s interests. If we weren’t that different, then there wouldn’t be a need for rules that keep women away from religious leadership, in the first place. Clearly that rule identifies us as different — the ones who cannot lead, because … there would probably be many possible answers here, but the bottom line is that we are viewed as incapable.

But this should not be the end. We can have our faith and still leave space for discussion of the rules. Women should be able to participate in the discussion. All religions should embrace the possibility for women to become priests (gurus, rabbis, imams, pandits, and so on). Maybe many women won’t go that route. That’s fine. But if they want to, in a non-discriminatory system, they should be able to do it. They should be able to have access to the closed room where religion is being interpreted and turned into rules for the community to practice.

I was raised into a discriminatory religious system, in the Christian Orthodox church, and I will always carry much of that with me, although I have long since taken my spiritual life into my own hands, and into the company of people who believe in tolerance and inclusiveness for all. I am a spiritual being but above that, I am a woman. I say above that, because I cannot change being a woman, while I can any day convert to another religion.

This is from woman to woman. A few years ago many women argued that they were perfectly comfortable with not having the right to vote. Only the crazies, the suffragettes, the dreaded feminists were of a different opinion. And without them, we’d be in the dark ages still. Please keep an open mind. This is not an attack to your faith, your God or your soul.

Can you ask yourselves how would your religion be changed if women were allowed to be spiritual leaders? Would that maybe hold a tiny bit of value for you? Seeing someone who looks like you delivering the word of God from the pulpit? Would a woman interpreting your scriptures bring you maybe a tiny sense of pride? Would it make you feel more valuable to your community? More recognized? Visible? Will it make you feel like maybe after all you’re worth something? Will it maybe make your daughter feel like she can really go anywhere, do anything, like you’ve been telling her? Will your daughter feel like she truly is in this world as precious as you think she is? Like she has a fair chance? One you didn’t have? Because unless we are exposed to this sort of equanimity from childhood, from the moment we start being aware of the world, later we are unable to see the injustice. I think that may be one of the reasons why we are not bothered by it. We’ve never seen any different. We’ve known our roles as future princesses and future mothers from the age of three. We’ve known our place to be at the back of the bus from the beginning. Let’s hope our daughters will someday have the choice to glimpse at the world’s lights through the front windows.

“Women ride in back on sex-segregated Brooklyn bus line”
“UPDATE: Sex segregaton policy on Brooklyn bus line to end, operator pledges”

An altar or more

We don’t have altars in our homes, back in Romania, as Orthodox Christians. We have icons hanging on walls. We pray to them. The altars are only in churches. Hindus, on the other hand, have altars everywhere. My mother-in-law has an altar in the kitchen, in Mumbai. Beautiful, colorful, awe-inspiring. My mother-in-law gave me all the ingredients for a proper Hindu altar: the Gods (Ganesha and Lakshmi), the agarbatti stand (incense burner), a lota (small water jug), a jeweled vessel with kumkum (red powder that is applied on forehead for blessing) and diya (a type of oil lamp).

We set it up when we moved to our new house, for a short ceremony of blessing and space clearing. And it stayed in our kitchen since then. In time, I added a beautiful icon that I have from my grandmother.

We are not very religious. I would say that we are, however, profoundly spiritual. We embrace the sacred in our space, especially in the form transmitted from our ancestors, in India and Romania. But not only. My husband has always found himself attracted to Zen Buddhism, mainly because of its simplicity. The altar in our meditation space looks more Buddhist than anything else.

I am more reluctant regarding all the religions. I have grown a painful skepticism toward all that is church and priesthood. What I prefer to do is pick and choose and give shape to my own belief-system. I love Jesus. I always have. I believe in him and feel his energy around and inside us. I believe in reincarnation and karma. I believe in a spirit world where all the souls roam free. I have started believing in dark forces that can mean harm.

I believe we are surrounded by unseen world of “energies” that interfere with our existence without our knowledge. I believe that we can improve, we can become more sensitive to the “unseen” and that would do a world of good. I believe we need the communication.

I hope my mother doesn’t get to read this, but ever since I moved away from home, I stopped caring about the sanctity of Sunday. On Sundays, people from my religion, are supposed to rest, as God rested on the seventh day. Other than cooking, no work is acceptable. I used to pretend to forget whenever I had some important, urgent, no other time-proper work. I used to tell myself that God doesn’t stumble on such small things as some work on a Sunday. I had to grow, time had to pass, for me to realize that Sunday is not a church imposed holiday, but a sacred ancient time when people not only get to rest their bodies but give themselves time to return to themselves, to meditate, to stop their existence in the busy world and turn toward the spiritual one, attend church maybe, pray, meet with the family, gain perspective. I don’t think we would ever stop otherwise. There is always something urgent to be done.

The sacred, the rituals, save us. I wished I had understood earlier. I guess I am becoming old now. I have always noticed that most people, as they grow in age, turn toward religion more and more. Young, mindless spirit I was, I thought it was the fear of death approaching making them try to mend the relationship with God, to get a sweeter deal. Now I know the obvious truth. As we get older, we simply start to understand.

As I write this, I realize how rebellious I have been. I would have never thought that about myself, because my greatest strides have been directed at conforming to the rules and standards and morals and values of my family and my society. I never liked it, I many times felt alienated but I did it nonetheless. Apparently, I was holding on some deep and strong and different personal beliefs when nobody was confronting me. Sneaky.

I now welcome into my life the sacred in forms I didn’t recognize before. I can accept that there are spiritual traditions that might not make a lot of sense to me now, but that nevertheless have a power that I should not fight, but surrender to. There are certain rituals that we need grab onto, as we climb. They are for our support and have done a good job for millennia. They have been my ancestors’. They will be  mine.

I want to tell my mother that I am sorry. I want to show my grandmother that I remember everything she taught me, all the prayers. I am sorry I didn’t go to kiss the priest’s hand and cross on Christmas. I should have done it for you.

I want to tell them that I am holding my icons on the east walls and I make a cross sign on the pillow my daughter sleeps on every night.

This heaven-blue icon from my parents lives in my baby’s bedroom. It’s my sacred.