Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

It’s been so long since I visited this place that I am strangely afraid. Afraid that it will not be here, or I will not be welcome. Or that I will find everything changed beyond recognition.

I need not have been so afraid. While I cannot remember precise details, I find that when I pass into the lighter part of the cave, I feel that sense of coming home that always greeted me on arrival. I expected cobwebs and dust and perhaps for small creatures to have nibbled at the belongings I left here, but the floor is without footmarks in the deep soft sand, and the ledges are untouched, and the items stored as fresh as when I last came.

It’s early morning; the damp air is filled with the scents of an autumn forest. From the lower slopes of the forest I can smell the tang of fallen leaves, that spiced mushroom fragrance mixed with woodsmoke. From higher, I can smell the pines and the other evergreens that cloak the peaks. I can even smell the distant odour of snow, though the clouds today hold only rain.

A small movement catches my eye; rising up from the path at the edge of the clearing is a figure I had not realised how much I missed. The clear shining eyes are the colour of morning sun on spring water rising through peat-rich soils, that luminous, glowing brown. We greet each other, and I run my hands through the warm pelt that feels like rough silk, and lean my head against the strong neck of the reindeer who is my guide. I do not apologise for my long absence; for time does not run the same here, and apologies are not necessary. I am here now and that is all that counts.

We spend the day gathering against the coming winter: nuts, a final crop of berries to dry and store, wood, the last batch of herbs and barks to see the winter through. Soft rain falls all the day, but it does not matter. At midday I light a fire in the fire-pit at the edge of the cave; the smoke does not fill the cave but is drawn away and lost. I make pine needle tea to warm and restore me; it’s a good source of vitamin c, and of good cheer. There is a stoneware jar in a niche to the back of the cave; it’s stoppered with a well-worked bung of wood, and I lever it open to find that it is filled with honey. Thick golden goodness and some comb. I put a small spoonful into my tea for the glory of it.

By mid afternoon, I can feel the pull of muscles unused to this work and am glad when Reindeer suggests we have done enough. I stoke up the fire and we sit companionably, me with a blanket around my shoulders and Reindeer a little further from the fire. We watch the light fade from the sky, and the forest below becomes quieter. I can hear the wind in the remaining leaves, rustling them. I think I hear something else, but I convince myself I am imagining it. I walk to the edge of the clearing, where the ground drops away steeply into the forest. There are paths which wind down this mountain, and into the forest, but few use them but me. This night is the night when the ancestors may walk among us, but I cannot sense anything this year. Previous years I have seen the glimmer of souls passing by to reassure me that they are not lost, but this year, I see nothing. The forest is lost in a dense, velvety blackness. I look down; in the very far distance I see the flicker of a few lights, camp fires perhaps, but most of the forest is in comfortable darkness.

As I turn to go back into the shelter of my cave, for the night is raw with rain and a wind that is starting to chill me to the marrow, I see a light. Two lights, in fact, which are approaching up the steep path from the forest. It takes me a moment to realise that the lights are actually eyes, reflecting back the glow of my fire in the overhang. I ought to be afraid but I am not. I ought to run for cover, to grab flaming brands from my fire but I do not. I step back, to allow my visitor to enter the open space before my cave.

It is a great she-bear.

Reindeer stands beside me, unconcerned, and nudges me, reminding me of my duty.

I clear my throat.

Greetings, sister,” I say. “You are welcome to share our fire and our food.”

She-Bear turns her head this way and that so that she can look at us both, but she does not speak. I see that she is thinner than she should be at this time of year and there are wounds on her flanks, which look only half healed. She grunts, softly, and we all move back into the cave mouth. She-bear skirts around the fire, cautious but not afraid, and lies down, still watching us.

I bring food. I find dried, smoked fish (salmon, I suspect) and berries and even some dry bread, and then I remember the crock of honey. I unstopper it, and pour it onto one of the slabs of smooth bark that serve here as plates, and place it close to She-Bear. She sniffs at it, and throws her head back in what I interpret as delight, before licking the plate clean. I give her half the crock, and then she eats fish and berries, but declines the bread. Then she yawns. Her teeth are huge, and frightening, but she is a good guest and we do not fear her. Instead, we sit together, the three of us, and we talk, in our own ways. Of those we have lost, of our fears, of our memories and of our hopes. I do not know how it is that we understand each other, but somehow we do. I learn that She-Bear has come to guide me, to be my guide as well as Reindeer, but that her lesson now is that of rest. I learn that the deep rest of winter is essential, and that I have not rested sufficiently in previous years. I have fretted and refused to rest.

The sky has begun to clear of rain clouds, and the temperature has dropped, as the stars begin to show in the dark sky. I can feel frost starting, and my other senses can feel the snow that waits, not many weeks away. The sharp, bright, invigorating smell of cold and ice and snow is still muted by the soft spicy scent of autumn, but I can smell it. Unconsciously, I find myself leaning back into the dense fur of She-Bear, her breath sweet from the honey and the hawthorn berries she has eaten, and I find her solid warmth extra comforting. I curl up in the space between the two animals, pull my blanket around myself and allow myself to sleep, guarded by two sentinels who I trust entirely.

The Insidious Perversion

The insidious perversion

You know how sometimes a sentence or a few words or an event can set of a train of thought that goes into some sort of underground tunnel, rumbling away unseen until it pops up into the light with revelations?

This week there’s been three ingredients that have set in motion a sort of Salmagundi of thought. The first was a tweet from an old friend:

The objectification of self. Everyone is a brand. The biggest and most complete and insidious perversion of capitalism” from Monica https://twitter.com/EquanimityNow_

I read it and got the shivers.

The second (catalytic) event was the revelation that a romance writer has trademarked a common word and has been sending out cease and desist notices to any author using that word in book titles. I’m not going into this in detail because it’s been written about a lot since it came up, but because it focuses on a very heavy-handed protection of the concept of “BRAND” it also chimed very much.

I have written before about my objection to the notion of author-branding, being told on occasions that I wasn’t understanding it and that in essence it was simple: I am my brand. My books epitomise the brand, and each book is recognisable as mine. I have always felt deeply uncomfortable with this notion, not because there isn’t a strong element of truth to it (see Hopkins’ poem As kingfishers catch fire: “What I do is me: for that I came”) but because it aims to both petrify a moment or a period in my soul’s journey and also to set a price on it.

There was a third ingredient but it was a quote from James Hillman and while I can recall it was about mining the soul for various processes, including raising our consciousness and of the problems of capitalism, I cannot find the quote to save my life. The nearest I can find to it is this:“What we hold close in our imaginal world are not just images and ideas but living bits of soul; when they are spoken, a bit of soul is carried with them. When we tell our tales, we give away our souls. The shame we feel is less about the content of the fantasy than it is that there is fantasy at all, because the revelation of imagination is the revelation of the uncontrollable, spontaneous spirit, an immortal, divine part of the soul, the Memoria Dei. Thus, the shame we feel refers to a sacrilege: the revelation of fantasies expose the divine, which implies that our fantasies are alien because they are not ours” James Hillman (The Myth of Analysis, p. 182). https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf 

When we tell our tales, we give away our souls.” Or in the case of authors, we sell them. I’ve struggled with not being able to write, with having lost the connection to the stories I knew (and still know) were inside me. I have felt hollowed out, empty and bereft. In some of my journeying I have followed many trails, from daydreams and night dreams, stories and songs and poems, and found scraps of clues. Here is one:

“For a nun.

Like your Hopi pottery bowl,
hollowed out, open, beautiful,
you’re being hollowed out by God
not to be filled but to embrace
the sculpted space itself, empty,
yet filled with what you almost see;
intimate poverty’s body.”

Murray Bodo OFM, from the book “Song of the Sparrow- new poems and meditations.”

 

Am I empty? Or am I simply open, filled with things not seen (and therefore perhaps not valued). I have told many stories. I have others still inside me but I cannot bring them to birth like I once did, naturally but not without great pain and cost to myself. I have become acutely sensitive to the great and terrible turmoil of the world around me, insulated though I am by privilege and accidents of birth. I am caught in a paradox: a need for action and an equal need for withdrawal for self-protection. A need to write my stories (and share them) and a repulsion for the mining of my own soul with those stories. One might say, write them and burn them (as I know one friend, fellow poet Deborah Gregory, has done http://theliberatedsheep.com/food-soul-animus-diet/ ) or write them and keep them hidden. Yet just as one would not bear a child and keep it hidden for its whole existence, I cannot write and keep it all locked away in darkness. Yet to publish becomes a connection to the worst of capitalism, the worst of a pervasive, perverted system wherein a writer can lay claim to a common word, seize it and trademark it AND GET AWAY WITH IT (it’s being fought and perhaps will be overturned)

 

In my scouring of the internet for those words that were the third ingredient, I found the following, part of the essay I shared a bit of further back in this post. It brings me some comfort, but not answers (as you will read). Perhaps I have not become completely lost.

Kenosis seems now the only political way to be—emptied out of certainty…Kenosis is a form of action—not masochistic action, vicitimized, crucified…[but] empty protest: I don’t know how to do the right thing. I don’t even know what’s right. I have no answer. But I sure smell something wrong with the government…‘empty protest’ is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the hopeless frustration you feel, the powerless vicitimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, if they come, when they come, to you, to others, but do not fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest!…[An empty protest] doesn’t have an end goal…Empty protest is protest for the sake of the emotions that fuel it and is rooted not in the conscious fullness of improvement, but in the radical negativity…Not only will you be seen as stupid because empty, but you will be also alone,…So empty protest for me is really a kenosis–giving up both the vanity of being admired and the surety of a sound position, and doing it in public” James Hillman (ibid., pp. 103-107).

https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf

Post scriptum: this article is very much worth reading. It’s Hillman’s exploration of How the Soul is Sold.

https://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/23/magazine/how-the-soul-is-sold.html

No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring(s)

I’ve written a lot about springs over the years I’ve been blogging. Indeed, I wrote an entire novel about a very special spring, the waters of which heal broken souls and mend damaged psyches. (see Strangers and Pilgrims)

But a spring is a magical thing. Water welling up through deep layers of rock and earth, bursting into the light in torrents or trickles. For early peoples as much as modern ones, a spring was somewhere both practical and supernatural. The symbolism of the well-spring is embedded deeply in both my creative and my spiritual life. When I have visited famous springs like the Chalice Well, or the White Spring, I have felt myself to be in the presence of a divine mystery, a holy thing.

Yet for all that, my creative flow and my spiritual journey have dried up, become fallow and unfed by springs flowing within my soul, within my self. Sometimes springs do dry up; sometimes they reroute. Some only flow in certain times and seasons, like the Swallow-head Spring that feeds the river Kennet in Wiltshire close to Avebury. I would like to hope that the period of dryness will one day end but whether it ends with a torrent or a mere trickle, I do not know.

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

When I taught English as a foreign language, one of the lessons I did covered the subject of Love. Inevitably it had to touch on romantic love ( and Romeo and Juliet: yuck!) but there was a short poem I used too. I can’t recall the poet offhand, as I’d seen the poem only in a collection of poems from Penhaligan’s (they did a range of scented books, of which I had three) that had a theme of LOVE. The poem was these few lines:

Same old slippers

Same old rice

Same old glimpse

Of Paradise*.

I wanted to get across the power of the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, in a relationship. Too much emphasis is put on the initial stages, on falling in love and that heady experience that too often leads to heartache and not to real, deep love. People talk about the glow going out of a relationship when in fact, they are settling into the deep reality that does not rely on romantic gestures to be truly nourishing to each partner.

In much of life, novelty and unfamiliarity are seen as the epitome of what we must seek, whether it’s in relationships, experiences or in what we look for in our entertainment. And in the pursuit of the new, the exciting, the different, the exotic, we lose sight of the ordinary beauty and wonder around us. Simple things like sparrows become invisible. Yet a sparrow is intensely wonderful. We just don’t seem to see them, and flock instead to see the fire-crest, blown off course and lost.

Same with plants. A spring time verge in this country is golden and glorious with dandelions, as lovely as if they were planted, yet we overlook their beauty (and use, too) for things we have to nurture and protect to get them to bloom.

Seek the wonder in the ordinary. Enjoy a cup of coffee in your own garden, back yard or balcony, breathing in the scent and wonder at how such a brew came to be in your hands. Take a peep at the wild flowers and birds around you, and see them with new eyes. Embrace the ordinary, and it will hug you back.

*I looked it up: William James Lampton.

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

Long ago (and perhaps not so very long ago) I’d have been burned as a heretic or hanged as a witch, because my expressed beliefs do not conform to the required norms of Churchianity ( a term I believe was coined by Dion Fortune, who was a devout, if unorthodox, Christian herself)

I’ve always been drawn by the numinous, since quite early childhood. I remember making a shrine in my bedside cabinet when I was about six or so, using a Christmas card with a nativity scene on it as a kind of altar piece, and surrounding it with things I felt to be beautiful or holy, like flowers and stones and so on. I learned the Lord’s prayer around the same time. We weren’t a church-going family so I am not sure where this interest came from. I conducted a funeral for my beloved pet mouse (when he died, of course) that involved holy water and flowers and so on, despite knowing nothing about funerals or ritual. But when I did start attending church by myself, aged 11, I can only say I found it dull, bound by rules and by unspoken assumptions about life that I had no clue about. There was nothing of the hidden glory that I felt existed beyond the mundane, which was the whole reason for my search.

The journey to find that glory has been a difficult one, and I’ve found it, that shining, singing, wonder, in places that are far from cosy fellowships and regulations and restrictions. It’s found in birdsong, rain falling on dry earth, the rustle of a mouse in the hedgerow, and in the flash of electric blue as the kingfisher flies downstream at dawn. It’s found amid the ancient stones, forgotten bones, and the trees that bud and bloom, and at the graveside of ancestors and avatars. It’s found in the wordless keening of grief, and at the joyful song of celebration. It’s found in the endless silence, in the light between the worlds, and in old books.

I’ve begun to understand that my aversion to fellowship is perhaps neurological; introversion is not a crime but in organised faith, it is often misconstrued. It may be why anchorites and hermits chose to go far from the madding crowds, because so few accept that one can be alone and be filled with the numinous. One is seen as stand-offish at best. The truth is that being among people can become physically and emotionally unendurable at times, yet to admit this risks having the admission taken personally and as an offence. It’s seldom seen as acceptable to be alone within a busy society; our culture does not understand it, and perhaps never will. So the erstwhile hermits suffer or they go away into the distant, quiet places, where they can hear that silent song, and see God within the creation and not in the works of human hands.

Yet the creation itself is at risk, under immense pressure and threat from those human hands. It’s treated as a commodity to be plundered and despoiled for our convenience and gain. As humans relentlessly pollute, destroy and desecrate the natural world, we also damage our relationship with the divine, immanent in every living thing, and every stone, grain of sand and soil, on this planet. The often forgotten fifth mark of mission of the Anglican church is to: To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx .

So perhaps my heresy is only such when viewed from certain quarters. I’d rather not burn or hang for it, but I’m already suffering.

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

It’s been weeks since I was able to blog; in the years since I began this blog (in Feb 2009 FWIW) it’s been rare to let weeks and weeks slip by without a post. I’m more and more reluctant to share any original material; my drafts file here contains more than a few short stories and poems. But I don’t hit publish because it’s become a worry to me that work can so easily be stolen from a blog for all sorts of nefarious reasons.

As 2016 draws speedily to its end, I had this dream:

I am in a big empty wooden building, like a barn or a log cabin. It feels like it has once been full and is now devoid of everything but two things. On the wall hangs a set of ornamental shelves, for books or for objets d’art. The only thing on the shelves is a single large natural sponge, and when I lift it, it is feather light because it is bone dry; not merely wrung out but dried out.

That’s how I feel: empty, drained of all life, light, creativity and potential. It’s not merely that I don’t want to write: it’s more that there is nothing left inside to bring out.

This time of year is quite grim for many; I spoke of the very real concerns for the world generally in my previous post (Rumblestrutting) and those concerns are growing rather than declining. And in addition, there is the loss of light that is a purely natural phenomenon as we approach mid winter.

Mid winter is seen in a positive light as a time to rest, withdraw, recuperate, hibernate and husband our energies, but there’s aspects that we too easily forget that our ancestors may have better understood.

Amid the darkness of mid winter is another layer of darkness, a kind of residue of things unfinished, thwarted plans, hopes, dreams ambitions, a silt of the soul that leaks into the wider world. It’s full of the anger and the sadness and the disappointments that are all part and parcel of being human, sloughed off because we are not well equipped to integrate the side of human nature too often dubbed negative. It has to go somewhere so it oozes around, like the gunk you find accumulating in sink outlets and drains. Not evil exactly but unpleasant, smelly and completely undesirable. Like slime moulds, this residue has a kind of unexamined sentience; it can seem that it knows what it is doing (slime moulds are fascinating things, by the by; do go and look them up) and it has an unerring tendency to gather in the unlighted corners both of our psyches and our environments, seeking to be acknowledged, expressed and released.

You know the much-talked-about Christmas Day fights so common in most families? That dark residue is probably the culprit, nudging existing intolerances and tensions and putting a match to the blue touch paper.

There are many, many ways of dealing with this residue; too many to count, among all cultures that have at some level understood it. Lighting candles, burning sacred smoke of a hundred types (white sage, Frankincense, cedar and so on) banging drums, gongs, pots and pans, prayers of all kinds, dance, song, and a thousand other things, all help to defuse the end of year residue, and in the still moments of the turning year, they help to welcome the slowly returning light as the sun seems to stand still, poised on tiptoes, before beginning the long climb back towards spring time and the light.