Spirits of Place

My husband and I are moving house.  We have found a beautiful cottage in a very old Warwickshire village. It is a village that has many local legends attached to it, an old tump which has (supposedly) been a Norman castle, Saxon settlement and ancient British mound. It has a 13th century church, and several very old pubs and orchards. The place is bound together by the thousand layers of human story that have created it, the many, many ancestors who have lived and died there; the candle maker from the old factory that was dismantled in the 1980’s and the shoemaker listed in the 1841 census, are all ingredients in the glue that holds the place together. A village is a mingling of folk, from the spirits of the deep landscape, the bedrock and underground water systems, to the rivers, hedges and field boundaries; the ancient badger set in the field, the people, dead and alive, human and non, the colour of the sky and the taste of the rain are what make it what it is.

I know that the house is old. Maps from 1837 show a building plan that is identical to today’s googlemaps, so I suspect it has been a residence for nigh on 200 years. We like each other, the house and I, although my husband and I discounted it initially. It has a number of things that I wouldn’t have chosen, compromises we will have to make and there is work to be done. But there are wonderful things I would never have hoped for too: idyllic, in a quiet courtyard, a studio in the loft, a farmhouse kitchen and an old, old, apple tree. It feels to be the right house, a place we could be happy, after a good few years of hard house-hunting and upheaval, it is a place worth compromising for. Falling into the category of ‘things I wouldn’t have chosen’ are, I suspect, a number of ‘former residents’ and some slightly ‘sludgy’ energy from the previous couple, who separated whilst living there. Most of us are prepared to put in some DIY when we move house, but how many of us are prepared to put in the energy work too? Making sure that not only do we feel comfortable in our new home, but also that our home feels comfortable with us, is perhaps even more important.

Having been sensitive to the dead all my life, I have always been wary of living somewhere that I am directly required to share my space with them. I grew up somewhat afraid of the dead, no one else saw or felt what I did, which meant that people either thought I was strange, deluded, or more probably, that we just didn’t talk about these things. I certainly frightened my mother on a number of occasions and soon realised that talking about the old woman in the corner of the room wouldn’t go down too well. Either way, I quickly came to understand that the dead were to be feared. Consequently, despite the work I do as priest and teacher, the dead still frighten me at times which means I have never learned how to work with them with much skill and I am aware that I need to learn how. The idea of sharing a house with some of them makes me apprehensive. It feels to be different to much of the ancestor work that defines my craft, because rightly or wrongly, I feel like I have more control of the situation and more importantly, I know them and feel comfortable with them.

Consideration of this situation has led me to think long and hard about the best and most ethical way to work with the spirits of this new place. I wonder, what it will be ok to clear out and what I have no right to ask to leave? After all, any person living there may have been resident for 200 years, what right do I have to ask them to go and more importantly, are they integral to the place, literally holding it together in some way, part of the building itself? What door might drop off, wall start crumbling or pipe burst as a consequence of their leaving? On the other hand, helping blocked and stagnant energy to move through, energetic house cleaning, would seem perfectly acceptable when done with good relationship and consent, healing for all concerned. Ultimately, I think that is a discussion to be had amongst everyone after we move in; what and who wants and needs to stay, what and who can be released. There is also a balance too, just as with all things in life, what do we disturb and rearrange that we might exist with any degree of comfort, because it will have to become comfortable or we won’t stay.

All of this prompted me to ask these questions, both on the practicalities and the ethics of working with the spirits of place in this way, in an online, broadly Druid, discussion group. I was surprised by some of the responses I got. Everything from stories of folk who had been in a similar situation and found a way to create relationship with the place that was harmonious, to those who recommended a spiritual ‘butt kicking’ and a sense that the world is for the living, that the dead don’t belong here. The second school of thought led me to wonder how common it is that even within the Druid community we still carry so many assumptions left over from a broadly Christian and dualistic mindset. Firstly the assumption that the world is for us – the living, to be used as we see fit, regardless of what other persons we might share it with, and secondly, that the dead do not belong here; that they live somewhere else, another supernatural, unknowable dimension in another time and place. That somewhere might be Heaven, the Summerlands, Valhalla, Hel, Annwn or the many other places that our mythologies sing to us of. Wherever they are, we cross our fingers and hope against hope that they are anywhere other than here. The dead make us uncomfortable and so we comfort ourselves with the idea that they are somewhere else, in a collective hall, singing and feasting away eternity. If they are here, then (we assume), nature has obviously gone wrong, and the process has failed for some reason, they are somehow stuck and require help to be moved on. Is it really that they shouldn’t be here though, or just that we’d rather they weren’t?

Whilst I certainly do not discount the existence of any, all and many more of these ‘Otherworld’ places, the world is vast, multi-veiled and complex, I do not understand there to be only one ending place where we all ultimately end up. The soul too is multifaceted, rarely sticking together in any wholly coherent form after death. To the Animist, body and soul are not separate, with the animating force leaving the cold corpse behind at death. Consciousness fizzes through fingers and toes, heart and hair as an integrated whole. When we die, memories, personality, layers of thought, emotion, blood, bone, fluid, atoms, carbon and oxygen start to disperse and with it our human solidity and coherency. We become memories in mud, thoughts that remain with our living friends and family, songs in the wind, particles in carrots and piss in the water, wandering the places that we loved or were attached to in life. Parts may dream on in our concepts and memories of Summerland or Hel, spend a while held in the arms of our gods, whatever we conceive that to mean, or exploring the stars and becoming a hundred other lives and a myriad other existences. Reincarnation becomes so much more exciting! To me, there is no sense that there is only one option, that the same is true for each individual or that there are rules about where we go or where we should or shouldn’t be. Rather, I would suggest that here is a perfectly legitimate place for many of these ancestral folk and shards of memory in their varying degrees of consciousness and coherency, as a part of the collective of the tribe and community, the richness of place and within the humming wholeness of landscape, integral and essential to it as we understand it.  We should think very carefully before we make decisions about where these folks belong and what is best for them. Just maybe they have made a decision or know something we don’t? Perhaps the first thing we should deal with is our own sense of discomfort and unease?

We talk a lot in our tradition about the spirits of place and I wonder what each of us imagines we are speaking to when we call to them? Is it just the nice things, the trees, the sky, the wind? Or is it all of nature, present in its blood and bone, mess, difficulty, memory and emotion. All the things that actually make a place what it is?

Liminal places and studentship

As someone who is involved in academia and passionately loves the university environment as a teacher, it is a while since I have been a student in this sort of environment myself. Despite embarking on a very steep learning curve over the past few months simply learning to teach well (both academically and in teaching my own students of the craft), I find it worryingly easy to forget what being a student is like sometimes. Not that I feel I have ever stopped learning, in fact, that almost inexpressible need to explore, discover, analyse and synthesise is a driving force in my life. That wonderful state of feeling like you know absolutely nothing about a new subject, drinking it, drowning in it, absorbing like your life depends on it is for me, one of the most inspiring places to be, yet, sadly it is not a state that lasts or comes around all that often. It ebbs and flows with our understanding and our perceptions of what we think we understand, abating a while as we fall under the misapprehension that we know something about anything and then waiting to pounce as our meanderings take us somewhere new. I spend a good deal of my life feeling like the competent amateur rather than the expert, good at lots of things by accident rather than design. But perhaps that says more about me and my ability to self deprecate than anything else.

Sitting in lectures today, not as a teacher but as a student of education itself, studying for a masters in teaching, I found myself unutterably and deliriously happy. It took me a while to work out what I was feeling let alone figure out why. Gradually I understood that I was in that space where I realised I knew less than nothing about what was being discussed but knowing that I really wanted to! The subject that got me so excited was the ‘Threshold Concept’, it’s something that I have experienced myself and often, firstly as a young student of the craft and then later as a student midwife and regularly, although tantalisingly, not regularly enough, since. However, I had never heard this educational phenomena described before. Like many things, it only takes the right person to say it in the right way for it all to fall into place.

A threshold concept is a thing or idea that, within a subject, is absolutely key for us to grasp before we can move onto deeper understandings of a subject or discipline. Sometimes these things will be individual, things that others find easy to grasp yet, take us years to get a handle on. Others are concepts that can be named within a discipline, things that you will either get, or you wont and will likely determine whether you study a subject long term or end up teaching it yourself. Thinking of my own studies within the craft, one of my threshold concepts was undoubtedly that of realising chronically and painfully how I had an impact on every particle around me; experiencing the ‘web’, to use the poetry of animism, not as a flat weaving of threads, a piece of fabric, but as a thick, viscous substance that had no spaces, not individual things joined together by bridges, but as a living, breathing whole. The air no longer empty, but so thick and full of life that I was frightened to breathe or move lest I drown or create a tsunami. Every movement and effect was magnified and blown huge. I can remember so acutely how the walls of my understanding just crumbled. I spent the next month or two putting it all back together again in a way I could make sense of, but I quickly found I had access to a whole new level of perception I could never have imagined if I’d tried.

This is another key aspect of the threshold concept, it has the ability, once grasped, to bring us to a place of liminality where all that we have understood about a certain thing is dissolved and we have to start to rebuild our understanding about how the world works, from the ground up. The threshold concept is often described as being like a portal, once you enter it, there is suddenly a whole host of ideas and things to explore that had been blocked by not understanding the first thing; that you could never even have known were there to be explored.

The interesting thing from the perspective of the teacher (or so the theory says and it does have its critics) is that it is quite possible for the student to make passably good attempts at pretending to understand the threshold concept (I know this, as a student I have done it!). It is only by deeper analysis that the student will be found out, they may not even realise their own lack of understanding, believing they have got it, when in fact they are far from it. Perhaps for many, this is in itself a part of the learning process. I can certainly identify times when it has been the case for me. Threshold concepts are difficult, thorny, hard; we don’t like them because they make life difficult. It is rather inconvenient to have to rebuild our understandings about something, particularly if we realise we may have been wrong about it for years and subsequently have to address that. As both a teacher and a student this was a really powerful understanding.

Yet there is is something utterly wonderful (for me) about that liminal space. I guess you are either partial to having your doors blown open and spending time being profoundly uncomfortable or you aren’t. I realised that it’s what I love about being a student of anything, I don’t feel quite complete unless there’s a door missing somewhere and space to grow and explore through the portal. I tend to stagnate without it. Being a student in a learning environment with other students, maximises the potential for this.

In a religious tradition where we are often our own teachers, either because we chose it or because there aren’t that many folks around willing to teach and teach well, I think the threshold concept is a valuable asset and tool that can teach us much. But it requires honesty and consciousness to use it well, the willingness to look at where we are not honest, not understanding, pretending, or not willing to explore and push a little into why. I can vividly look back at the times when I didn’t get it, often I had the inkling I was pretending a little, desperately hoping that my teachers would believe I had groked it. The bad ones bought it, the good ones rarely did.  Of course it takes a willingness to blow the bloody doors off, even if it means being uncomfortable for a while but in my experience, the portal or rather my preferred metaphor, the rabbit hole, is always worth it no matter how strange.