Sunday, December 03, 2006

weather report: the spiral of light

The kids are finally drifting off to sleep, early because we were out ridiculously late last night. I just wrote “it’s the first time this weekend without an urgent need,” and of course one should simply never write that. I hear a groan from across the room.

“We forgot.” Scott said. “We forgot that Madeleine’s birthday buddy is Jaita, and Jaita’s birthday is tomorrow. We need to bring treats for the third grade.”

“Is this on the calendar? Because I sure don’t remember it.”

Scott walks over to the calendar and picks up a pen. “Yeah, it’s on the calendar now. I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to bake.”

“I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to go to the store and buy chocolate chips.”

Three hours go by, baking and cleaning up, getting ready for tomorrow. Brendan wakes twice, his foot hurting from a tumble at a gymnasics party. Medicine, love, and back he goes. Clothes are out for tomorrow, head almost empty enough to sleep. I started out the day teaching Sunday school. I haven’t stopped moving, since. These are tough days for needing a minute to catch up with myself.

On Saturday, we celebrated The Spiral of Light, or the Advent Spiral. A darkened hall, a circle of children surrounded by a circle of adults, and surprising quiet. A tall teenager dressed in angel white slowly carries a candle through the simple labyrinth of pine boughs, to the center. She lights a candle, there, and emerges just as slowly, then follows the first child through the labyrinth. The child carries her own candle, set in an apple for a holder, and chooses a spot for her apple to set in the pine boughs, and returns to her seat while the next child makes the journey. Into the darkness, out with a light of her own, so goes each child, as a harp plays.

Last year was the hardest spiral for Madeleine. She chose a fancy dress, red and black, and flitted and flirted with her dress, showing off her silliness for classmates as the quiet music played. Her teacher moved her once, twice, three times away from the other silly-makers, all silly-contagious. This year she is utterly composed, solid and present in the moment. She chose a no-nonsense turtleneck and skirt, and her walk is deliberate and careful. She does glance up to quickly smile at her classmates, and she places her candle in the spot just at Brendan’s feet, so he will have a candle to watch as he waits his turn. She is more than a year older—she is decades older than last December. And this is her last spiral. The ceremony is only for children in the third grade and under. She can carry her light now, on her own.

Brendan makes his round, meditatively. He is surrounded by very calm children, and they effect him well. He is not rapt, but he is not distracted. I get the feeling he could stay here in the near-darkness all day, just like us.

One of the other silly-makers from last year is Miles, and he too is settled and tall. He fidgets a bit, but he too sets his candle directly in front of his younger brother Jamie, who is four years old. One by one the third graders, second graders and first graders walk the spiral, then Mrs. Babcock walks quietly to Jamie, and he solemnly holds her hand and takes his candle to the center, taking his time to thoughtfully place his candle where it lights an amethyst cave, near the spiral’s center. When he walks back to sit with his dad, Miles sees Jamie coming and pulls an empty chair next to his own. Jamie’s face lights and he hops onto the tall chair, as Miles pulls him close in a hug.

“I got to be the last one,” he whispers, and everyone hears. “I got to be the last one.”

The musicians stop playing and we sit in silence, a spiral now lit by candles, faces of children visible in the glow. We file out quietly.

“Hey, Jamie,” I say when we are outside, kneeling to his eye level.

“I got to be the last one, you know,” he says.

“I saw it. How was it?” I ask.

“The last one,” he says again. “This is my candle.”

“Yes it is. You have a light,” I say, and wish him goodbye. I wish I were young enough to walk the spiral, too, to see what I might learn. I know there are labyrinths all over the world, for some similar reasons, to go to a center and return again. None are the same as this one, with these children and their friends, and their brothers and sisters.

The children hold their apples for the ride home, in the dark. We turn on the heat for the first time, in the car. Winter is here.


Anonymous said...

The Spiral looks like a lovely ceremony, with lots of warm emotion, but I wonder: what are the children told of the purpose for all this? For that matter, what is the message to adults? I really do like the idea but would like to understand better where it leads and what is the ultimate teaching moment for the children--and all others who observe and/or participate. Thanks for your further explanation.

Denise said...

The Spiral of Light is actually a Waldorf School celebration, not intended by the school to be Christian in nature. The Waldorf school "says" nothing, but lets the experience speaks for itself.

Thanks for linking from Byron's suggestion-- I do write about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd experiences, which are specifically Christian, in "Two Small Children and the Mean Old World" and another piece "Serenade." I would put links here, but I'm running to work, and trying to correct as quickly as possible!

I love these two experiential education communities, though they are very different in nature. The Waldorf stuff is meaningful in a metaphoric way, whereas the Good Shepherd stuff is just the best way to learn my way around the Bible and the world of the Old and New Testaments all over again.

But yes, I write about both kinds of experiences, and I know the difference between the two. The Waldorf stuff is just a joy, the Good Shepherd stuff is a joy and also the rich stuff of the Christian faith.

Denise said...

Having said that the Spiral "says" nothing, I think I overstated it. Much of Waldorf education uses the metaphor of "carrying a light" into the darkness, placing a candle where light is needed, seeing the change one light makes to a darkened room.

The experience is a metaphor, much like some churches include Labyrinth experiences, entering the center and returning. In George MacDonald's writing (Scottish Presbyterian minister,Civil War era), the journey of a Christian is to follow the path obediently. In the Waldorf school, it's an effortless meditation.

Again, too, this is not a "Christian" celebration, though it can be seen through that lens. In the Waldorf tradition, the Ultimate Teaching Moment is taught by allowing a child to absorb quietly, without turning every event into reasoning and talking.

Actually, that's what I like about Waldorf as well as The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: there's a good deal of silence, concentrated meaningful silence, respecting children's ability to absorb an experience and interpret it. We are teaching young contemplatives.

That can be a scary thing for evangelicals, who want to tell, tell, tell, inform, inform, inform. I know, because I've spent a lot of time telling and informing.

You may laugh, but I have a hard time with ritual-for-ritual's sake in the Episcopal church. I need to know that each ceremonial thing is connected to a tradition, and I often throw up my hands at the formalities. It's schooling for me, as a learning contemplative, as much as it is for the kids.