Sunday, December 16, 2012

Las Posadas

Tonight in Holden Village we celebrated Las Posadas (Spanish for "the inns)--a festival which recalls Mary and Joseph as sojourners searching for refuge in Bethlehem.  Before we began Scott, our village pastor, compared Mary and Joseph to the homeless lined up in front of shelters, waiting for a warm bed.  In the United States 700 of these people die from cold each year.  Scott reminded us of the world's 13 million refugees, flung far from their homes who, like Mary and Joseph, wander in search of shelter and safety.

During Las Posadas we moved from building to building, following a sculpture of Mary and Joseph, holding candles and singing, In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter because my beloved wife can continue no longer.  At each building, characters dressed in costumes turned the crowd away: This is no inn, continue on your way.  I walked bundled in a hat and scarf.  Snow dusted my boots. My candle flame wavered in the cold.  I showed a little girl with dark hair how to keep her candle lit by sheltering it with her mitten.  We moved side-by-side, our breath smoking in the air: singing, sometimes in English, other times in Spanish.

As I walked, I thought of a close friend who moved to a new city without a job or a place to stay.  As a young women in her twenties, she worried about checking into a shelter, so she squatted in yards or slept in her car for days.  She shivered through November nights bundled in her jacket and sleeping bag.  I pictured her each time the song rose in my throat,  In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter.  I remembered of a man I passed each night when I lived in Cambridge who slept wedged against the glass door of the grocery store where I shopped, wrapped in felted blankets, his face covered by his hood.  I thought of a woman I'd served at a shelter in Detroit, who hugged me when I gave her stereo-foam cups full of water to take out into the summer heat.  She'd spent days too dehydrated to move and when I made her to promise me she would drink every cup of water I handed her, she pulled me to her and hung on long enough for me to smell her hair.  The next week I saw her naked, paper-toweling vomit from her skin in the shelter's bathroom--she didn't recognize me--but to this day her face and smell stay with me.  Gray curls and stale sweat.  A body thin enough to snap, depleted and shaking, without a soul to care for it.  I saw her shape tonight as I sang, In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter.

Las Posadas ended in the dining hall, with everyone welcoming Mary and Joseph into a warm well-lit room.  We sang Joy to the World, in Spanish then ended with Marty Haugen's hymn All are Welcome.  Holden, a four-year-old whose parents named him after Holden Village, collected our candles in a helmet he'd worn for his Las Posadas skit.  I shared sheet music with my housemate Kari and sang as loud as my lumpy throat would let me, Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat: A banquet hall on holy ground, where peace and justice meet.  Kids batted at a star shaped pinata and people flocked to tables to drink hot drinks.  When I left the dining hall, Las Posadas candles still stood upright along the stomped-snow paths marking Mary and Joseph's trail in the winter dark.
Here in Railroad Creek Valley, daylight dwindles as we near the winter solstice.  On the 21st of December, the day I leave Holden to return to Michigan for Christmas, we'll reach the darkest day of the year.  Holden Villagers will walk a prayer labyrinth lit by luminaries, holding candles to both mark winter's darkness and anticipate the coming light.  Meanwhile, the sun stays behind Buckskin Mountain's peak and dusk begins at three in the afternoon.  When we get direct light, we bask, taking our lunches out in the snow, and raising our sun-starved faces toward the sky.

This week we celebrated St. Lucia Day.  Holden's kitchen staff prepared St. Lucia buns and aggkaka with lemon sauce.  The children in the village held candles and wore wreaths on their heads as they distributed baskets of bread and poured cups of coffee.  They walked through the dining hall in a procession, lighting the space with costumes meant to draw attention to the coming solstice--the mid-winter turn from darkness to light. 

The night before St. Lucia Day, my friend Alex led a vespers on light.  She told us she grew up hearing from her mother that we were all balls of light--and that when we die, we'll shed our skin like jackets, unearthing shining shapes for all to see.  She read a passage from Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which compared human beings to sparks which have a shine and a song, made from the glitter of God but covered with mud so deaf and dumb that we struggle to see the shine in ourselves or in each other.  Alex passed out scraps of paper and instructed us to write the things that dulled our shine and broke our spirits.  We sat in silence, recording brokenness.  Then Alex asked us to walk outside into the cold night.  We gathered around a bonfire on the luggage-loading dock.  Alex told us we could burn our scraps.  Another woman started to sing and we followed her voice.  The fire got bigger as we fed it.  Smoke wafted through the air.  Flames sparked the snow.  Our song grew stronger.  We saw each other glow in a fire we'd built together.  We watched each others' faces flicker in the light.  
In Rebecca Solnit's beautiful book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit writes about the importance of darkness to projecting film onto screen to make movies, comparing it moments where a runner's foot leaps above the ground, creating the space for another step forward.  She concludes, We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.  In the past month, darkness and light have meant star-lit night skies and mid-afternoon sun beaming off the snow, St. Lucia wreaths and insecurity consuming bonfires, luminaries lit prayer labyrinths, candle-marked paths, and darkness so thick I have to feel my way with my feet and fingers.  It's meant remembering the lonely, who sojourn without a home, and lighting candles in hope that they find shelter and safety.

This Friday, I'll come down to a mountain to a culture less still than the space I inhabit here.  I'll come back to shopping malls and cable television, to cars and planes, paved  roads and hot showers.  I'll return to people I love.  I'll hug my brother.  I'll linger over dinner dessert with Mom.  I'll listen to Dad play guitar.  I'll get to slip between the sheets of the bed in my childhood room and wake up to the sound of dishes clanking in the kitchen and the smell of Mom's coffee.  But as I board the ferry Friday, I hope I can hold tight to some of the stillness I've gleaned from this place, sheltering it as I head toward Michigan--my mitten-shaped home.


  1. Safe travels home Rachael! Look forward to seeing you at Christmas... Love, Aunt Lisa

  2. Wow, your experience with the woman in the shelter really gives the Las Posadas reflections some teeth. I think Mary and Joseph would relate.