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The Herb of Grace by Elizabeth Goudge ~ literature that heals

A while ago, I was sent a gift of a book, from a friend on Twitter. Sally had read my review

of Elizabeth Goudge’s A Scent of Water and very kindly sent me a copy of The Herb of Grace,

which she felt I would love.

I took a long while to read it. In fact I took a long while to start reading it. I wanted to make sure that the experience was at the precise right time I needed to read this book. There are tides and seasons of a life and becoming atuned to them, I’ve realised we can grab too greedily at pleasures and seize things before they are ripe. When an author is no longer living, or like Susan Howatch,

no longer writing, there is a diminishing pool of works of theirs we have not yet read. There can only ever be ONE first time to read a book and for some books, it’s important we read them when we’re ready. I’ve heard it said that Jane Austen ought not be read before one’s fortieth birthday; to some extent I would agree as the nuances and subtleties are probably lost on most teenagers obliged to study Austen’s works for school.

So I waited until I had a week away with my beloved friends Kate and Mike, in my equally beloved North Yorkshire before beginning to read The Herb of Grace. I chose to read slowly. In normal circumstances I have a very fast reading speed, learned from my university days where I would often have less than a day to read some brick of a book. I read Moby Dick in on frenetic, fevered afternoon. I have a terrible tendency to gobble books, read far too fast and too intensely. I didn’t want to read this one too quickly.

I restricted how far I read in one day. I stopped myself at the end of a chapter, put the marker in and made myself not open the book again for at least a few hours. It was like a box of wonderful bespoke chocolates; however fabulous they are, the best way to enjoy them without sickening is by choosing one, perhaps two, to eat each day. You savour each bite, each melting on the tongue and you stop while you crave more.

The Herb of Grace is probably a tremendously old fashioned book in a lot of ways. There is little of the kind of melodramatic antics of thrillers, none of the bodice-ripping of romances, and almost all of the characters are hopelessly likeable. And, if you are used to the breathless pace of many modern novels, you could say nothing much happens. Yet so much does happen that it’s hard to précis the plot. The second book in the Eliot family saga, The Herb of Grace takes up where The Bird in the Tree left off. I read the first book after The Herb of Grace, so you don’t have to read them in order and I’d suggest you don’t, as to me The Herb of Grace is a better, more enthralling book. The series follows the lives of the Eliot family: matriarch Lucilla rules the family with kindness and a strong sense of duty, holding them together during and after the war and doing her best to ensure that the family retains integrity, both personal and familial. Unhappy daughter-in-law Nadine is perhaps the least likeable character, coming across as somewhat selfish and self-absorbed. A series of events leads Nadine and her family to buy The Herb of Grace, a former pilgrim inn not far from the family estate of Damerosehay, and as the family move in and begin restoring the old house to its former glory and its former function, the house itself begins to exert its benevolent influence over all who live or visit.

There are many mystical aspects to the house, both part of its former history as a pilgrim inn and also connected to the nearby Knyghtwood, an ancient and almost impenetrable woodland that holds deeper secrets than the white hart that is sometimes seem locally. For me, with my long love of both woodland and ancient folklore, and of pilgrimage tales, the lure of the Knyghtwood was such that I struggled not to rush through chapters to find out more.

Every character in the story carries a hidden grief, a wound that isn’t healing. From Nadine, who has given up her love David, for the sake of the family, to the somewhat feral twins Jose and Jerry, all the beings that live within this beautiful book are damaged and in need of love, hope and healing. Yet slowly, steadily, without any flashiness or Damascus roads of drama, healing begins. It’s the place itself, the genius of the house and the beings that exist deep within the wood, that heals, but it’s not without work or cost. The soothing atmosphere the house holds is the start, softening and gentling souls the way a horse whisperer might slowly tame a frightened, abused horse, but each must then begin to step out in faith to uncover (and there is a very literal uncovering of something extraordinary that appealed to me. I’ve long wanted to strip wallpaper in an old house and find something under it that blows the mind).

It came at the right time for me. It reassured me that the layers of myth that this land holds (the world holds it too, but I know only my own small corner) have a power that endures, even to the cynical times we live in know; those deep mythic layers endure and spread and grown and remain whether we know it or not. Like the symbiotic system of roots and fungi and flora and fauna that exists beneath the earth in a wood, it carries on whether or not anything above ground is aware of it. It reassures me that the mythos that I believe I tuned into to write Strangers and Pilgrims

and Away With The Fairies,

is still there, humming and glowing and growing. It reassures me that I am a part of a wider, wilder experience, one of a people who have heard these lost songs and have begun to sing them again, adding their voice to the harmony.

You see, it’s too easy to become deaf to the tunes. It’s too easy to let the power of commerce and the need to make things saleable ruin the joy of being a part of an ongoing story. I’m a writer of stories that heal, part of a long tradition of storytellers who keep the old tales going through the dark ages. Rosemary Sutcliffe used the term Lantern Bearers, and I believe that’s what we are.

So thank you, Sally, for sending me that beautiful book at the exact right time. My light was guttering and the book has mended my wick.

Equinox at the Cave

Equinox at the Cave

There are cobwebs everywhere when I move through from the long dark tunnel and into the subdued light of the cave.

At first I think this is simply because it’s been so long since I’ve been here but as I look around, I realise that the place is different from when I was last here. The light streaming into the cave has a mellow, golden tone to it, and the air smells not of sap and spring flowers but of wood-smoke and that spicy, musky odour of fallen leaves. When I get to the entrance, I see there are things waiting for me; this is always the way: I arrive and I find that something has been prepared for me.

In the brisk wind, I see Reindeer waiting at the fire-pit, the breeze ruffling dense fur. I bow my greeting before burying my face in that soft warm fur. It has been too long and I am ashamed of my absence. I had felt unworthy to come here, laden and burdened with anger and a desire to hurt those who had hurt me, so my visits stopped. I did not wish to pollute this sacred space with my pain, though surely I should have known it would heal me to be here. I am a fool.

I feel a touch and I look up; the great soft muzzle has nudged me to alertness and with one unmistakable gesture I am directed to investigate the things left at the entrance. I get to my feet but as I move, I sense Reindeer getting up and moving away. The pile of objects left for me are puzzling and delightful. The first is a heap of pebbles, white quartzite polished to a sheen, each so large I cannot close my fingers around it. They are heaped upon a folded blanket of crimson and other colours. There is a design woven into it but I cannot interpret the figure in the middle. The wool is dense and soft and will be very warm. The final item is a long plush feather, barred in beige and white; by the feel I think it may be from an owl.

I am alone. My guardian spirit is close by and I know I am safe as the sun dips below the horizon, far off beyond the endless forest that stretches out below my ledge. I set to and light the fire, feeding it with the pine cones that litter the pure white sand around me. One by one, as the sky turns darker, the stars emerge, pinpoints of brilliant white light in a velvet canopy. The night is cool, and is becoming colder, so I fetch the blanket and wrap myself in it and I sit close to the fire.

My head nods and I have to stop myself falling into a dream state. Perhaps I have for as I gaze into the fire, I see eyes gazing back at me from the other side of the fire-pit. At first I think my guardian has returned but then I see that there are not two eyes but eight that watch me, without blinking. In the dancing shadows I see that my new companion is a being that baffles all comprehension.

As the light flickers, she too flickers, changing from one form to another. At one moment she is a an elderly woman, her face stern and wise and webbed by lines of experience that make her visage more beautiful than a smooth young face could be. At another moment I see a vast Spider, lovely but alien and strange. Perhaps I should be afraid but I am not; instead I am simply overwhelmed with the honour of this visitor.

Greetings, Grandmother,” I say, bowing, even though I sit cross-legged and swathed in my blanket.

She bows back and we sit, facing each other through the fire, companionable but silent. I do not know what to say and I wait for her to speak. As my Elder, she must have come with a message, but for a long while she sits, her hands moving but her voice stilled. Gradually I see that she is weaving, or perhaps knitting, and her clever fingers are creating something out of yarn.

The night draws on and I am glad of the fire. My legs grow stiff, and reluctantly I get to my feet to stretch them.

Bring the stones.”

Her voice is melodic and sweet, but it makes me jump because I had begun to think she would not speak at all.

Bringing a few at a time, I carry all the pebbles to the fire side and when I offer to bring them to her, she shakes her head. She had settled on form and much of me is relieved that she has chosen to remain as Grandmother, leaving her Spider form. I settle down again and look at her, quizzically.

Build me a tower with the stones,” she asks.

The stones are too rounded, surely, but I obey and time and time again, I manage to balance one pebble on another, and sometimes even a third, yet always, the fourth one’s placing causes the tower to tumble. She laughs, as a mother might at a child’s folly.

I drop the stones and lower my head, feeling my cheeks redden and I struggle to force the anger down again.

I can’t,” I say. “I can’t.”

I can,” she says, and when I glare at her, my eyes filled with skepticism and anger, she laughs again.

Show me,” I ask, ruder than I ought to be to this Being.

She comes to my side of the fire and I see that she has been weaving a long, thin net. She picks each stone very carefully slides it into the net until it is full and all the stones are contained within it. She holds the end of the net, and the stones jostle for a moment before settling.

But that’s cheating,” I say, outraged. “It’s not standing by itself, even.”

She laughs and very slowly removes her grip on the net. To my astonishment, the structure remains upright and intact. For about ten seconds, it stands before toppling to one side. Some of the stones spill out.

I am chastened. I do not ask her why she asked me to build an impossible tower, but instead I gather the stones and the net back together and I hold two of the pebbles, one in each hand. They are of the same weight and size and the cool surface of each is a pleasure to touch.

Not everything must last forever,” she says. “I bound those stones together for a short time. Now those stones are free to be something else.”

I do not understand but I do not really need to; this is something to ponder in the long nights to come. The stars have shifted since I first began my vigil and I sense that we have come to that still point, where for a short time, day and night are of equal length before inexorably, night becomes longer and the days brief and cold. I take the two stones, and I manage to balance one upon the other, and I leave them by the side of the fire-pit. The Being on the other side stands up, her body filled with grace and strength that bely her ancient nature.

You may bind things together and they may stay bound for a time,” she says. “But having once been bound, they will always remember the binding. It is the remembering that is important. That is my gift.”

She raises a hand and in my mind, I also see her raise palps and she slips away down the trail that begins at the edge of the sand. I sit back down and wait for the dawn. I slip into sleep, and I wake to find Reindeer next to me, my head resting on warm flanks. All around the cave, all over the bushes at the edge of the ledge, are a million webs shining with jewels of dew. The blanket slides off my shoulders as I rise to my feet to stretch, and as I pick it up off the sand to fold it, I see clearly for the first time the design woven into the wool.

A stylised spider sits at the centre of a web whose threads make the words: Grandmother Spider Wove The World.

As I walk back into the cave, I find the feather. I had forgotten this gift and as I lift it to the morning light, I see that the end of the feather is shaped; the hard keratin end has been fashioned into a nib.

I have no ink,” I say aloud, but Reindeer is asleep and there is no one to answer me.

http://mxtodis123-maidenmotherandcrone.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/grandmother-spider.html

http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/sunrise-on-the-solstice-the-view-from-the-cave/

In defence of weeds and other “useless” things

Many years ago a friend of mine rented a house somewhere in Surrey (it may have been Epsom) along with another girl. The other girl was quite keen to make their little garden a wild-life haven and one spring planted a packet of wild flower seeds in the border near the boundary fence. The flowers duly came up and bloomed: scarlet poppies, golden corn marigolds, inky-blue cornflowers and many others. She was very pleased with the beautiful show of traditional corn-field flowers. One day, she went out to see her next door neighbour leaning over the fence, pouring liberal amounts of weed-killer over her lovely blooms.

Them’s weeds,” he said, with the big smile of someone who is sure they have done their good deed for the day. “You don’t want them in your garden. They’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

(As an aside, I had something similar happen recently, and I’d like to add that if you want to do someone a good turn, make damn sure that you ask them first. Your idea and my idea of what a good turn is might well not be the same thing.)

Weeds. It’s such a pejorative term. And as Wiki says, it has no botanical meaning.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weed.

A weed in one place is a valuable plant in another. I love weeds. Our garden is packed with them. It’s also packed with more wild-life than you tend to find in neatly manicured gardens. Someone recently complained to me that despite putting out food for the birds, she only ever saw crows, pigeons, magpies and jackdaws in her garden. Every inch of said garden is manicured, trimmed, tended, weeded and dead-headed. There’s nothing there for most birds: no seeds or caterpillars, no grubs or worms, no fruit, and nowhere to roost.

Nature is not tidy. That’s why many people hate it. It’s messy and disorganised and unpredictable, untameable and impossible to control fully. That’s why I like it.

Our garden is not a gardener’s garden. To someone who likes to be in control, it would look a mess. But we get flocks of goldfinches because they eat the seeds from the thistles and they come to bathe in the pond. We get clouds of butterflies because we let the lawn bloom with clover and hawkbit and self-heal and yarrow. We have hives of honey bees, but their cousins the solitary burrowing bees and masonry bees and bumblebees all enjoy the space we have for them to live undisturbed too. We never use pesticides because the blue tits come and gobble up the greenfly the ladybirds are too full to devour, and the slugs and snails get munched by visiting hedgehogs who leave their calling cards on the grass. We don’t worry about ants’ nests because great green woodpeckers come and probe the grass and lick up all the excess ants and grubs and leather jackets.

Melissa grows in the gaps between paving, and in cracks in the walls; a swift handful makes a soothing tea for anxiety. A crushed handful goes into the smoker when bee hives are inspected; the herb cools the smoke and stops it incinerating unlucky bees. The fresh juice rubbed into the wood of a new hive is said to attract swarms. Dandelions are plucked to feed to Tiko our guinea pig, and sometimes get put into salads. Crushed mint is used to treat headaches and what Culpeper called “a passing heaviness”. Most weeds are actually valuable medicinal herbs; if you have an interest, I can point wholeheartedly to Susun Weed’s stupendous book Healing Wise:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Healing-Wise-Woman-Herbal/dp/0961462027/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410610402&sr=1-1&keywords=susun+weed

which uses only seven plants (weeds) for almost every ailment. (Dandelion, burdock, nettle, chickweed, oat-straw, violet and seaweed. Really, check it out. If I had to choose only one herbal, this would be it)

Many of the creatures that inhabit our garden are ones that folks object to. Wasps are almost universally loathed; yet people forget what excellent work they do in pest control, and also some pollination. Not only that, it was a wasps’ nest that inspired the discovery of paper. Spiders too are hated, yet their webs reduce the amount of troublesome flies and mosquitoes, and since the spider is the totem animal of the weavers of words, I find them lovely too. The song of the grasshopper is for me the song of summer, yet it has no use but to recall the drowsy days of distant childhood where lying in a meadow of long grass I would while the afternoons away cloud-busting or day dreaming.

Every creature, every plant, every rock, every breath of wind, all have their place and their right to be without having to be “useful” to humankind. The kindness of nature is that treated rightly, and viewed with respect, all can indeed be of service to us. But it cuts both ways; if we honour and respect nature, we will joyfully share our spaces with it, invite it in and nature will flourish. Cut it out, exclude and revile it, and it will fight back and believe me, nature will eventually win.

Gaia does not need humans; humans need Gaia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_S93xMn_uo

Excuse the jubilation but I am delighted to report that Away With The Fairies hit the number one in metaphysical fiction:

fairies as 1 in metaphysical fiction

I’m a bit chuffed to say the least. It’s been there the last couple of days.

A huge thanks to all who bought during the sale. It’ll be 99p for the rest of today (well, the next 9 hours) and then £1.99 for another 3 before going back to original price.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/ref=la_B00766135C_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410505015&sr=1-1

For a limited time only, Away With The Fairies will be on offer at first 99p then going up to £1.99 before returning to its normal price of £3.08. UK only.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/ref=la_B00766135C_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410250853&sr=1-2

If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” ~on gurus and growth

I’ve been interested in spirituality for a very, very long time. I felt drawn to the sacred from quite an early age, despite ours not being a church going family. My parents had both been both church goers and even Sunday School leaders (my dad had been in the Crusaders) and both have a faith. But for some reason, church going ceased during my childhood. Yet I was always drawn towards religious art (such as the classic pictures of Bible stories you found usually in the King James’ version) and towards religious and spiritual symbols. My older brother poured not just scorn but active contempt on it and I ended up creating a tiny shrine inside my bedside cupboard, where he was less likely to wreck things or poke fun at it. I was about seven or eight at the time.

I’ve no idea why I was like this but that longing for the divine, the mystical and the magical has been with me my whole life. I’ve read a great deal of popular Christian books as well as some ‘proper’ theology and in my twenties I began to explore aspects of other faiths and spirituality that seemed to call to me. By my thirties I’d stepped off a mainstream path and had begun to explore things that many would consider dodgy and dangerous. Looking back, I can’t see why any of my explorings caused such consternation among my peers (some of whom considered aromatherapy to be suspect and potentially devilish.) Having encountered extreme narrow-mindedness that tried to dictate what was and what wasn’t a valid spiritual path for others to take, probably influenced a good deal of the story in Square Peg, but even now, many years later, I still find it both shocking and disappointing that so many people can regard other spiritual paths as evil and dangerous. I suspect this is quite possibly the root of all religious wars.

One of the things though that is common to all spiritual paths are people who are regarded as leaders, gurus and guides. For most of us, our most common brush with them is via their works, whether they write books, produce music, speak at conferences or broadcast via podcasts, TV or film. Oh and possibly blogs and other social media platforms as well now. I’ve often said you can judge what stage a subject is at in its arc of popularity by how many books are devoted to it on the Mind Body Spirit shelf in a big chain bookshop; by the time it has filled the shelf, the subject has already begun to wane in popularity, due to the lag between commissioning a book and seeing it published.

People have favourite authors in the spiritual arena just as much as they do for fiction and these are authors that have become, in essence, gurus. Each new book, each new set of oracle cards are awaited with great eagerness. One of the most famous authors in this area is Paulo Coelho, author of the allegorical novel The Alchemist (and a lot of others since that came out over twenty years ago). I’ve mildly enjoyed his books, but I stopped buying new ones a long while ago. I even spent some time on the discussion forum connected to his website but I stopped when I noticed something disturbing. Huge numbers of his followers, the greater majority, simply seemed to worship the man and his books. The language they used on the forum was sycophantic and pleading, and I found myself so uncomfortable with their attachment to a man they can’t possibly know, that I left and never returned.

There are two other authors I’ve encountered who have produced dozens of books in a largely New Age vein, whose fans are desperate for the next instalment of their wisdom. Both write about angels, archangels, spirit guides, mermaids, dolphins, unicorns and so on. I’ve read a number of their books, over the years, and I’ve found them to be a bit like meringue: sweet, pretty, easy to consume and full of empty calories. My favourite pagan and spiritual shop stocks these books (and set after set of oracle cards) and I’ve asked a few times why the owner sells them when she agrees with me that they’re spirituality-lite at best. It’s because people WANT them. They want more of the same, but a little different so they feel they’re learning something new.

Human beings are drawn by both novelty and familiarity. Something new yet something old and familiar. It’s the same for spirituality as it is for food and anything else. You have to have a kind of progression, something to build on and improve on. My concern about the books I mention above is that there’s little or nothing about the actual growth of the individual reader; there’s a subtle hook to keep you buying the next book (or set of cards). There does come a time when to make progress a leap in the dark is essential. To quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Last is the breath of God: Only in a leap from the lion’s head shall he prove his worth. It’s by taking that leap of faith of proceeding when you don’t have either map or guide, that you realise that the only good guide or guru is one who encourages you to leave them behind and move into unknown territory. A good guru teaches you the skills and the wisdom to manage without them at your side every step of the way.

One of my favourite books of all time is Mister God, This is Anna. I would encourage anyone to read this book and make what you will of it, but one of the most powerful things about it is that it stands alone. Apart from a couple of other books that the author wrote to try and share a few more stories, Mister God stands alone. It’s supposed also to be a true story, and I believe that by and large it is a true story. But the source of the wisdom and words is long, long gone and is beyond the pressures of a publisher demanding a new book every two years, expanding and enhancing the words of the original.

My spiritual journey is unique. I cannot tell anyone what theirs should be. But I can say this: at some point, you have to stop following guides and gurus, and find your path for yourself. If they were good guides, they have given you their best tools to help you. At that point, you have to take that leap from the lion’s mouth and put your best foot forward.

 

 “The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I’ve none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.” Marcus Brodie. 

Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.

Most days I walk down to the stream in the village a mile or two from where I live. I walk through fields farmed for mainly arable crops, though one large field (I’d estimate around a hundred acres) is currently planted up with roses being grown for the garden centre trade. Each walk is slightly different even though I take the same route; the daily changes and the seasonal changes mean it’s never the same twice. I stand at the bridge and I watch the water; sometimes if I am lucky I see a kingfisher or a dipper. Sometimes, if I go later in the day, I see barn owls and bats.

I live in a country that is deeply beautiful and historic. It’s jam-packed with legends, stories, myths and mystery. There have been humans here since before the last Ice Age and the evidence is everywhere, from white horses (“It’s an ad for mead; they don’t call them the Beaker People for nothing”) carved into hillsides, through medieval churches right the way to tower blocks and factories. Dig anywhere and you will find something. I sometimes field walk, for fun, and in half an hour in an average field, I’ll find a dozen items. Most are trash but some are not.

More than this, I am so immersed in the mythos of the land I live on, I can feel the presence of those who came before me. I feel the tug on the tiny web of threads that connect us. When I see the kingfisher flash upstream in a blaze of brief glory, I think of the Fisher King, of the Grail, of Arthur and his court, of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, trying to scrape at the layers of the years to reveal the origins of the modern Wasteland; I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, battling his own demons of existential angst and trying to make peace with who he was. When I see a gathering of oak and ash and thorn, I think of Kipling, of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, and of all the ancient tree lore of the druids of old.

When I visit a city, I see the clues to the past among buildings and parks; sometimes lost completely but perhaps a ghost of a memory locked into a street name. I look upwards in old churches and cathedrals, seeking the faded residue of once-brilliant paint, and I look in hidden corners for masons’ marks and sneaky graffiti. I look for the past reaching into the present, holding out hands of loving connection.

Amid a wild landscape, I can see the phantoms of what once was there. I lived once in a village where a ruined village, abandoned in the time of the plague, hummocked and hidden, lurked just beyond the bounds of the modern village. I can look at the under-storey in a wood and I can tell you whether it is original ancient oak woodland or whether it’s modern plantation.

Why does any of this matter?

The living land is an ever changing thing, always moving and shifting, but it is the past that gives it permanence. What once was is always there, if only as post-holes and scorched flints. When an artist, a real artist like the old masters, not dilettante dabblers like me, painted, they painted in layers that meant the work in progress looked nothing like what they were painting. Layers of paints, piled one upon the other, produce a depth of colour that is impossible to reproduce with a single layer of what is technically the same colour. There is a richness, a power, that cannot be produced by short cuts.

It’s the same with a land. The older the land, the deeper and richer the history and the surer the foundations. If you try to sweep away the past, whether personal or national, you sweep away what makes it strong.

Oh England, my Lionheart, with your stories and your landscape etched and carved and eroded and forgotten corners, with your heroes and your kings and queens, and the fair folk and the winding roads the Romans hated so much and then fell in with: you are what made me, and I love you.

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