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Yule and the Loss of Youth

I saw a young man walking by the side of the road yesterday.

He had a fey quality to him, and I felt I instantly recognized something in him that I'd seen before: a kind of tentative joy and relief, the sort that's felt by the misfit adolescent who finds himself suddenly furloughed from the old routine of being shoved into lockers by thuggish peers or of hiding the humiliation of being the smartest boy in school who doesn't know what to do with something as ungainly as loneliness and desire.

He reminded me of many nameless young Pagans, young men especially, that I have known. And, seeing him bounding lightly over the snowy sidewalk across the street from me, I couldn't help but grin in delight just to see him there.

Just as I grinned, the young man glanced up and saw me; he grinned back, began to wave a cheery greeting, and then, a heartbeat later, with a hitch in his step, brought his hand back down.

It could not have been clearer if he'd shouted it, his unspoken thought: "Do I know you?"

No, no, you don't know me. Even if my hasty impression of you is right, and you are a Pagan, you wouldn't know me today. My days of active community work and leadership seem to be behind me now.

It was a smaller Pagan community in which I came into my spiritual adulthood, one in which we still imagined we could all know one another's names and hearts. I was in my prime when I married Peter and moved to Massachusetts, and it was at that Yule almost twenty years ago where I first felt that sense of being a young family, standing at the bright, warm heart of things, at the first local ritual we went to with my daughter. I wonder if she remembers it at all? Casual pick-up drumming in the kitchen, endless platters of potluck food, sleepy children in laps and overstimulated ones racing through rooms thronged with people.

Then the call to ritual. An enactment of the season: As we stood round, in the center of a room now darkened except for candles, one child walked into the circle holding a box. Solemnly, dead, dry autumn leaves were placed inside the box, and that child's father, with antlers on his head and a copper sun between the tines, bowed to touch the box once...twice...three times with his antlers.

The box was opened, and lo and behold, the dry dead leaves had become green and living. Yule was come, life was returning, and we all joined in the songs.

On the way home, my daughter fell asleep in the back of the station wagon, and Peter and I were still wrapped in the soft glow of candles.

We were young, but grown. We were parents, but parents of a young child. Everything was ahead of us then. Traditions were still fluid and in formation, and understanding seemed to sprout and grow like the greenery in the magic Yule box. Our job and our pride was to share them, to gather the scattered children of the goddess for ritual and study and potlucks and community. Our passion was participating in and shaping and invoking the mystery of Pagan community. And it was good, and warm, and it did seem as if it would last forever.

Time passed. We became the leaders of a coven, hectic and always planning. Our child stopped being the girl with a rag doll who sucked her thumb, and became a teenager, familiar with music we'd never heard, organizer of sleepovers and parties and a gang of friends who seemed immortal.

It deepened us in community to watch her reshape our traditions to fit herself. By the time she entered college and her friends scattered, I was teaching school, exhausted on a Yule eve that often fell on a school night. It was wonderful to watch her take charge of the traditions. "Come to our house," she told all her friends. "We always have cinnamon buns. You can help me make them. You can decorate the tree." And they did, and the house became so full of singing, laughing, cooking, decorating girl-bodies that there was hardly room to turn around. At times, I thought my head would explode from all the chaos and the heat and the noise.

Outside, the winter air was cold.

But I loved it. (There is that. At least I had the wisdom, even then, to know I loved it.)

But this year, my daughter will not join us in decorating our Yule tree. For the first time, her life's course has taken her away from us on that particular night.

We are adrift, Peter and I. We are no longer the young leaders of community, and we are no longer the wise parental figures at the sidelines.

We're just middle-aged, our parenting behind us, both in the Pagan world and in our own family.

It's almost Yule. And I am old, and cold, and a little sad. I recognize the joyful step of youth, but youth does not know me, any more.


Anonymous said…
Ah, Friend. You stand at the threshhold of the next stage. From Mother fulfilled you look ahead to the Crone. She seems a bit scary -- and rightly so -- but you have lived the life and gathered the wisdom and empowered yourself to sit in Her chair. The world will look different from there, with new wonders to behold. Blessed Be.
Peg A said…
What beautiful words; haunting and wise and full of familiar feelings. I have not been a mother, and don't think of myself as a crone (yet--anyway I hate that word), but I relate to your thoughts here. I have walked on a similar path and it has intertwined with yours over the years and Yule brings the circle round more poignantly than any other sabbat, it seems...

I hope your traditions still bring you joy. Gather some pine boughs, light some candles, bake some cookies...whatever gives your heart joy.

I also miss Yuletides past full of noise and light and craziness...but am going to try and treasure this year's quiet, too.
Anonymous said…
Being needed does not have to stop. The thirty year olds will need you next. Its only a matter of time before they find you:-)

Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,
What joy and depth - thank you for reflecting your heart and allowing us to see. Thanks for the remembrance.
Love & Light
anj said…
This is beautiful Cat. I always find Light in your words. Acknowledging the loss that comes with change - painful and hopeful. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Nobuddy ever REALLY believes Browning's "Rabbi ben Ezra."
In His Love,
Anonymous said…
Cat, your posting today really moved me. It reminds me Erikson's writings on human development, and the developmental crises. (As an educator I'm quite sure you are familiar with these, but for your readers who aren't, Erikson posited that as we develop from infancy, we move through different phases in which we face a challenge, and either meet it successfully and move forward, or do not meet it, and wither spiritually. In our adult years, we graduate from the milestone of forming stable relationships and parenting ("Generativity versus Stagnation") to the milestone of older adulthood, ages 60-75: Integrity versus Despair. I agree with the reader who felt you were speaking today to the transition to the beautiful and powerful Crone phase. The light of wisdom casts the shadow of the losses and lessons on which it is found. As a younger adult who is benefitting from the wisdom and insight you share with thousands of us across the web, I just wanted to say thank you. Twenty years ago, *I* was that haunted young man by the side of the road, whose face lit up when he saw your grin. On his behalf, and all of us who got thrown into gym lockers countless times (g), thank you for your kindness. I will be thinking about you and sending you light on Solstice morning. Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
I have just this weekend officially claimed my cronehood. Your blog is a recent discovery but your words never fail to inspire questions and thoughts. I, too, will be holding you in the Light tomorrow
Anonymous said…
Ah, Cat

You are often a spot of light in my day, and I suspect the days of others. You have shared this with us and provided an Yuletide flame of inspiration and eloquence and honesty and wisdom.

Of course I expect nothing less from you...

I must say though, just because we are not there to share the solstice with you do not think for one moment that you are not a beloved community leader, a friend and friendly-acquaintance, and a dear, dear part of so many of our lives

Peace, and Hug,
Thanks to all.

I think what I was reflecting on was not so much that there will be no further steps along my road--I certainly hope that there will be--but that one stage of the journey is now done. Whatever follows will be different, and in a way, all change is loss. Even if something new is being born, something old has passed away.

And you're right, Nate, it wasn't Browning I've had in my mind these last few days, but another poet:
THAT time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold...

Absolutely my favorite of the sonnets, and in particular those haunting last lines, "This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well which thou must leave ere long."

Which is all a bit morbid and self-pitying, really... until I remember that Shakespeare was probably younger than I am now when he wrote those lines, and died when he was only 52--not so much older than I am now.

Of course, now we all expect to live long, full, productive lives for decades longer than in Shakespeare's day. And yet, even though my health is fine and my life is good, I can sense mortality standing a little off to one side, like a very polite visitor.

He coughs politely to get my attention, though he waits unobtrusively for it. After all, he knows the message he is bringing me will be received.

In time.

This too is part of the pattern of the wheel's turning. I confess, I often like the wheel of life less than I mean to, in my Pagan theaology.

But for now, there's food for feasting, friends for celebrating, and the reborn sun. The darkness makes the light more sweet, and it's not so bad to remember to "love that well which thou must leave ere long."

Bright blessings, and many thanks.
Anonymous said…
Cat, you write so beautifully and poignantly. Even though I have no children, I think I'm starting to recognize that middle-age melancholy. It hit this weekend at an otherwise joyful egg nog party. I saw that we are no longer as youthful, energetic or as healthy as we once were. It was still good to be together and yet something was missing.

Not sure I can offer any great wisdom, but it's wonderful that you have so many happy memories of your daughter at home this time of year. I guess we all need to stop looking back and keep moving forward?

And that ritual with the box of leaves--marvelous!
Liz Opp said…

What a joy to read a bit more of your journey. It reminds me of the many times I have reflected on the Quaker elders in my life, the one dearest to me having passed a few years ago now. She believed in marking the transitions, even if only by holding a worship or speaking openly of them with others.

She also believed in being a presence to others, like myself, who needed help in finding the Way. She never gave advice but she heard me out, probably because she herself had been there too, many years earlier.

That is what I find in your words, Cat. A letting go of the woman (and the couple) you once knew yourself to be, and a breathing space for now before you step into the woman (couple) you are about to become.

I'm sure you are in good, dear company of many others who have walked this path ahead of you... and who will walk this path years from now, long after you have settled into your new role, whatever it may be.

(And how did this year's cinnamon buns turn out???)

Blessings, and reaching for a napkin to wipe off my drool...
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

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