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Exploring our Limits of Caring

During this past election season, I found myself creating a boundary. This boundary determined which human beings I would allow into my circle of caring. If people associated with the other political party even slightly, I mentally shunned them in a very dark way. As someone who tries hard to be this unattached, free spirit full of love, acceptance, and rainbows, this startled me and it forced me to examine limits of caring further.

For some of us, the circle of caring ends at our own skin. We empathize with others, but we don’t reach out because we have our own long list of important needs, real or imagined, to tend to first. Entanglement in someone else’s life means less time to spend on our myriad needs. If I take time to really listen to your story, I’ll have less time to meditate or pray or wrestle with my demons. Or paint a landscape or play trombone or read Joseph Campbell or write my daily poem.

Some of us can love our families with all of our hearts and souls and that’s where it ends. Our family is witty and talented and smart and we almost pity those who aren’t part of it. These relationships sometimes define us with bumper stickers expressing pride in our honor student, or wearing clothing or jewelry stating “Hockey Mom” or “Football Dad”. Compassion for others in the community isn’t even on our radar. Our home is our kingdom and if we had a drawbridge, we would pull it up.

Some peoples’ circle of caring enfolds around those of their same religion. We may not necessarily condemn those of a different faith, but we don’t look for opportunities to get to know them better. Some of us do condemn those of another religion and treat our own religion as a fortress. We lash out at others, then retreat into the safety of our church-shaped stockade. Those inside the fortress love and support each other, but that is where the compassion ends.

Some of us need to limit our circle of caring to race. Maybe because someone’s skin is a different color, their customs, beliefs, and history are different than our own and that is threatening. Being around people whose color and features resemble our own feels safe, and it is the only circle of caring we can embrace.

For some of us, our circle of caring ends at our country’s border. We read or hear about other people’s suffering in other countries, but it is irrelevant. We look at suffering in our own country and want those needs taken care of first. We might pray a heartfelt prayer for those living with bombs in their neighborhoods, but we don’t want any of our money going there and we don’t want the might of our country going to help them. We proudly wave our star-spangled flags and take care of our own.

Some of us have no circle of caring at all. The human race includes everyone with hearts, eyes, skin, and blood. Everyone in the global village deserves food, clean water, and the love and safety of a home. Our money flows from our pockets to the local farmers market, to Habitat for Humanity, to Doctors Without Borders. We love knowing the few dollars from our pockets might be teaching a mother a skill or giving a hungry teenager the sustenance he needs to give him hope for his future. Because what if everyone worldwide had the gift of hope and compassion for and from a stranger?

At times of our lives, and even during times in a day, we can pass through all of these boundaries of caring. When we’re sick with a cold, we are all that matters in that afternoon. When our spouse loses a job, our family is all that matters for a while. When there is conflict within our religious institution, it requires the congregation to pull within for a spell. When our country is under attack, we might need to rein ourselves in to ensure our safety until things stabilize.

A problem with circles is they can act as boundaries. Boundaries limit our ability to learn about and from others. And they prevent us from learning the size of our own hearts, and the ability to expand our love and compassion beyond our own recognition.

So I am digging around in my own heart, trying to find a morsel of care and compassion for my politically opposed cousin. I am trying to send love and acceptance to that neighbor who still has that damn sign up. If I can accomplish this, who knows what other barriers I can break through.


Celebrating with the Ancients: A Winter Solstice Ritual

Just before the crazy-making of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day comes this other event, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, measured by the brevity of sunlight.

The winter solstice has a history of rites involving great fires, dance, and sometimes sacrifice to entice the sun to return. Once we were assured this shortest day was an annual occurrence, the rites evolved into festivals, celebrating the return of longer days.

What’s interesting to me is that the ancients knew when the shortest day of the year was coming. They watched and studied and noted the changes in the sky, the days, the light. While I go stumbling through my work week and to do lists sometimes hardly noticing changes in nature going on around me, they knew when the days would shorten right down to the solstice day. Then they built structures like Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.

Newgrange, which predates the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, has an opening called the roof box through which light floods the structure’s chambers with light for 17 minutes during Winter Solstice. The construction of Newgrange is said to have taken about 30 years, so it is likely the architects knew the longer days would return. They expected the change in the length of days, but perhaps they still deemed this worthy of wonder and mystery.

I like this. I like recognizing the wonder of the earth’s tilted orbit around a star. In my world, we don’t have great bonfires or grand festivals requiring bold sacrifices or lavish offerings on this day, but I like celebrating fire to honor those keenly observant ancients and to recognize the vastness of the universe.

A winter solstice ritual can be tailored for a group or for one’s own solo observation. Here are just a few suggestions to honor the darkest day of the year.

  1. Honor a Yule evergreen. I am not one of those thoughtful, organized people who has boxes of meaningful tree ornaments. I prefer to recognize the tree itself and think of it bringing wind, fresh air, years of sunshine, and birdsong into my home. I decorate it sparingly with white lights and elements of nature or representatives of nature: a purchased nest, a nice feather or two, glass icicle ornaments.
  2. Create a solstice fire. For indoors, use whatever candles are on hand. Sitting quietly in candlelight can be it’s own ritual, releasing ourselves from any demands of the day. There is no need for song or chant, just simply sitting and observing the Yule evergreen, our surroundings, and our own being is enough. If you are able to have a fire outside, do so. Gathering around a fire and gazing into the flames is mesmerizing, while still taking time to look up and lose oneself in the expanse of the sky.
  3. Release old wounds and worries. What can we let go? What steps can we take toward healing, or forgiveness? Write them down, and then burn the paper in the fire or in a fireproof bowl, releasing the intention into the ether. Accompany this act with consciously feeling the release from the heart.
  4. Create a winter solstice altar. While the word “altar” freaked me out at first, I realized I’ve been making them most of my life, only I call it “decorating”. A winter solstice altar consists of things to acknowledge this day or this season. Mine includes an evergreen branch (usually cut from the bottom of our Yule evergreen to make it fit in the stand), a giant pinecone from my son’s home far away, something gold to represent sunlight, and incense. As I interact with it throughout the season, I’m reminded of the gifts from this planet I live on.
  5. Feed the birds, those keepers and messengers of spirit. Step outside into the cold darkness and fill a feeder or hang a suet block on a tree, sending the birds an offering of warmth and comfort during these cold months.

The beauty of these nature-inspired celebrations is that there is no need for elaborate ceremony and expense. All that is needed is eyes to see the gifts that nature provides and a heart that welcomes it in.