Walking the Cleveland Way

I have written before about walking and the power of pilgrimage here. It is something that I continue to explore as a defining power and influence in my life and there is more to come on this for you other walkers and journey makers soon at some point. It is something that I feel has quite literally, at times, saved my life this year.

For now, I wanted to share a video I made this past week of a pilgrimage I made with my Mum along the Cleveland Coast in Yorkshire. It was her first long distance walk and something she’d wanted to do for a really long time. I was honoured to make the journey and spend the time with her. This links through to my youtube channel with other journeys made, and more on the way.

The Cleveland Coast Path

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Wilderness

‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.

If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.

In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.

How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.

All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.

When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.

Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced  lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.

 

 

 

Wynn

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Part of my daily practice is the drawing of a rune to work with and keep in my consciousness throughout the day. I find that it is a great way of continuing to expand my understanding and awareness of the runes, as I apply them to all sorts of different situations and listen to what they have to teach. Yesterday my rune for the day was Wynn (or Wunjo for those of you who work with the Elder rather than the Anglo-Saxon runes).  Typically Wynn is considered to be one of the most beautiful and auspicious runes of the Futhork. Wynn represents the ‘W’ sound and is usually given the meaning of joy or bliss, that wonderful place where all is easy and beautiful. I like to think of the shape of the rune as a weather vane, that which does not fight the wind but easily finds its direction in natural harmony with the forces of nature around it.

“Fantastic!” I thought, “How can you go wrong when you draw the rune of joy, ease and comfort? It’s going to be a great day”, at least that’s how it started… Yesterday wound up being just about the worst day I can remember, emotionally speaking, that I have had for some time. I ended up at my altar just sobbing by the evening, dealing with old emotional patterns of fear, loneliness, and abandonment, which I always think I’ve dealt with, and which often come back to bite me when I am absolutely least expecting it. Add to that a cracking headache and this was not the sort of day I anticipated. “This was supposed to be a Wynn day!” I railed at any person who would listen, and to the Gods: “you’re taking the piss, right? This is beyond horrible.”

Of course, there were three mistakes I made yesterday. The first was forgetting that divination is not about predicting the future, although draw a lovely rune such as Wynn and it is all too easy to cross your fingers and hope that an awesome day will land in your lap. Divination, as the name suggests, is about communing with the divine, and actually listening and considering carefully what you are being offered and why. The second mistake was being lazy and forgetting that I might actually have to do some work here to achieve the potential offered. The third mistake was not understanding that maybe I was offered Wynn BECAUSE it was a shocking day and maybe I needed to take note of the healing that it offered in order to get through.

My new favourite book of the moment is Kvedulf Gundarsson’s Teutonic Magic . It’s back in print after a while off the shelves and if you are interested in such things I can highly recommend it. He offers this description of Wunjo;

“Joy”, rules the virtue of of cheerfulness, which is as necessary… as strength or generosity. A cheerful mind through all hardship was seen as a great part of courage. …This gladness showed forth the strength of will to endure all the sorrows and hardships of a time much more beset with bodily struggles and hardships than our own… To reach the goal of Wunjo you must be able to keep your pains and sorrow from looming too large in your life, yet you must know a few troubles in order to understand how to deal with problems when they do arise” (p97-98).

This was exactly the message I needed to hear. Wynn is not about life automatically being great, or the fortune that falls in our lap, or being a naturally happy or fortunate person. It is about adjusting our attitude to life so that we can find the joy and the strength to appreciate what is sweet, even when faced with the utter crap that so many face on a day-to-day basis. The weather vane stands strong in the storm, it does not break, but it does so only by allowing the wind to show the direction rather than continuously fighting it. Wynn teaches us to flow with the wind or to swim with the tide, it is not a passive action but one of choice and conscious decision, even if that choice is about chosing to flow with something rather less than ideal than allowing it to break us. It is this ease that brings the joy, but often there must be a certain surrender and acceptance of the things we cannot change, that life will not ever be perfect, so we might as well get on with it.

For me, Wynn, carries a message of ultimate personal responsibility. No one else can do this for us. No one else can decide for me that life will be good. No one else can make me feel unafraid, or reverse those feelings of loneliness or abandonment. The people who love me can help and they frequently do, with care, love and consideration for my feelings and needs and I always aim to offer that in return. But ultimately, that healing can only come from within. If I expect it to come from others, all I do is apply a sticking plaster to the wound and a continuous supply of affirmation and attention is needed to keep it covered. This tends to be rather exhausting for all concerned. I become needy and self-indulgent in order to avoid dealing with what ugly stuff is really lurking underneath. Ideally what is required is a hug and some support when I get the to point of being brave enough to gingerly peel back the sticking plaster.

Wynn is not just about the huge moments of utter joy and ecstasy that blow us away, although it is very much that too (and bloody wonderful they are when they come!) Finding the Wynn (joy) in the small things is just as important. Joy rarely just heads our way arriving fully formed and ready to entertain. We have to seek it, craft it, have the courage to court it, understanding that we may need to let go of some assumptions about life and what we are owed (or in most cases not owed at all) and by whom. Taking a moment to appreciate just how lucky I am, helps keep things in perspective. It helps me to realise that life is really not so bad, I have food enough, people who love me, a home, and summer is well and truly on the way. There truly is simple joy in these things whatever other horrible stuff is happening. Yesterday, I forgot that. I forgot that remembering  how lucky I am melts away a good deal of the “poor me” self indulgence I was stuck in. I forgot that the Wynn I had drawn that morning might just have given me the courage to rip off the plaster to see what was really underneath, had I the wit to use it.

This morning, my rune for the day was, you guessed it (I hear the gods laughing as I type), Wynn. Again. I suspect I needed that, because I certainly wasn’t listening yesterday! As usual, I end up writing the stuff I need to hear in order to give myself a good talking to and I never know whether what I write will be posted until I’m done. So today I am determinedly taking my own advice and picking up my sword with a manic grin and possibly fewer teeth, and deciding that it will be a better day. Getting in my car this morning I opened all the windows despite the chill and the rain just to feel the wind in my hair, questing for that weather vane ease and direction. At the same time I noticed how stunningly green the leaves were in the dampness, the sky clearing to palest blue, and just how damn good that marmite on toast I had for breakfast tasted…

Soul Weaving

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I am someone who has always been obsessed with yarn. From the moment my mother taught me to knit age 5 years old, fibre and the things that can be done with it have been how my soul expresses its passion and creativity. My husband will tell you stories about how my yarn stash is taking over the house and he regularly threatens to insulate the loft with my fleece. I think he is only half-joking.

But a story about a fibre obsession is not really the subject of this post, more a way to set the scene for a metaphor for the soul that I have been working with over the past year, with a fabulous group of women; that of the idea of the soul as a woven tapestry. A tapestry that is constantly being woven, shaped and created as we live, from the different colours, textures and fibres of our actions, interactions, inspirations and relationships, and that can be to varying degrees consciously patterned, rather than a process that happens purely within the unconscious. We call this conscious practice ‘Soul Weaving’. This is not a new idea, in fact it is very old, and it offers us a glimpse of how our  heathen ancestors may have conceived and worked with the concept of the human soul and with methods for healing, integration and understanding.

Within the modern Northern traditions, the spinning and weaving of fibre and fabric is a revered art which in itself carries undertones of the sacred. The very act of taking fleece through the process of being cleaned, sorted, washed, carded, spun, woven and finally stitched into a garment is quite an undertaking and anyone who has been a part of the process, particularly if you have done it from beginning to end, will appreciate the stupendous amount of time, dedication and energy required. Perhaps it is this understanding and reverence for the sheer effort involved that originally brought the imagery of weaving and spinning into the metaphysical, creating a body of knowledge, myth and story entwined through the rich body of lore of the Northern Traditions.

In both Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology we are told of the Nornir, three women, possibly more, who are responsible for weaving the web of all existence on their loom, measuring, weaving and cutting the threads that make up each individual soul ~ human, god, plant and animal, nothing is outside of, or exempt from, the threads of Wyrd that weave us into the web. This great web is often termed the Web of Wyrd and an understanding of it is absolutely central to Heathen cosmology. The three Norns who appear most often are Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, whose names can in the simplest of terms be translated as past, present and future. They are the goddesses of fate and destiny who determine the lives of men and the other gods alike. We also have stories of Frigga, wife of Odin and one of the primary deities of this body of lore. Spinning is also seen to be sacred to her with the three stars which hang from Orion’s belt often being called ‘Frigga’s distaff’, a tool used to prepare flax for spinning. Although not attested to in the lore, many Heathen folk will honour Frigga as the preparer of the threads for the Norns to weave.

The modern practice of Soul Weaving is to work, through vision and journey ever more wakefully, with our own tiny piece of the vast tapestry, and to learn intimately the different strands and threads that are woven into it, the history and origin of how each stitch came to be. In this way the soul tapestry becomes a map of our own consciousness, which we can use to effectively manipulate the strands of wyrd and our own existence as far as that is possible. The Soul Weaver aims to take ultimate responsibility for everything they do and the soul tapestry becomes both the tool and the medium with which to become increasingly more awake to this process. For some this work begins by completing a journey or path-working and asking to be taken to see their soul tapestry. When I first started Soul Weaving, I was shown a vision of a tapestry that had largely been woven for me, the work having been completed by gods and guides or by my own subconscious, where I had been unable to do it myself. It was a bit patchy, the colours and patterns did not always match and there were areas that without doubt needed darning! At the time I was going through a process of dismantling and re-naming myself, unsure who I was or where I was headed and this was clearly apparent in my soul tapestry. Little by little I began to start mending, working out which threads could safely be removed and replaced, the places that discordant colours or patterns could be fixed or exchanged, taking responsibility for each stitch. I also learned much about what could not be changed, what was set and where the whole thing would just disintegrate if I messed around with it too much. As I worked I found that each thread corresponded to old patterns, buried emotions, lost and present people. At times the work was and still is painful, bringing up parts of myself that I thought were long dealt with ~ that argument I had forgotten about, the time I seriously messed up, old wounds and negative emotions were all to be found there alongside shining and beautiful achievements, relationships, loved ones, happy memories and soul connections. For a woman obsessed with fibre the visions made perfect sense and provided me with a language for some of the most profound healing I have ever experienced. Good Soul Weaving sisters helped with that too.

Of course the process of Soul Weaving is never-ending, a life’s work. The tapestry is constantly being woven through every moment of living another stitch is created, another thread woven in. But the vision of the soul tapestry can provide us with a magical method of envisioning the conscious process of unfolding Wyrd and of our own connection to the vast web. Those familiar with shamanic ways of practicing may well be familiar with something similar; this deep soul and self work is not unique to Northern Tradition practices.

Much of this modern Soul Weaving practice is intimately connected with a body of lore, drawn from various sources which describe the soul as being composed of constituent parts, woven together to create the seamless whole soul. Again work with the soul parts enables us to delve ever deeper into our own consciousness, discovering ever more deeply how we are woven together. Many will know or be familiar with the soul parts by other names yet the Old Norse or Old English names may stir other understandings and older truths within us if we are conversant with their stories. The physical body becomes the Lyke (our likeness), our astral body or nemeton becomes the Hyde (literally hide or skin), the vast bank of memories we hold becomes our Mynd (the mind) and our passions and inspiration becomes the Wode (possibly a kenning for Woden himself). There are many more, and too many for a single blog post, but an article on each will follow. I would love to hear from anyone else who works in this way and explores this body of knowledge. My experience of it to date has been of extraordinary healing, connection and understanding of my own soul consciousness and relationships within the web.

 

Walking the Cotswold Way.

A Pilgrimage to Sulis Minerva.

The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

The idea of pilgrimage is always one that has fascinated me; there is something very sacred about taking the time out of day-to-day life to devote to making a journey. As a teenager I studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was swept up as much by the act of travelling to a place of reverence as the characters and their raucous stories.

In a world where we travel a hundred miles in an afternoon and think nothing of popping down the road by car to our ‘local’ sacred site, which may actually be 20 or 30 or even more miles away, so few of us know how it feels to walk 100 miles or more, or the effort, energy and the determination that takes even for someone as blessed as I am with good health and the use of my legs. Yet, it was a more common occurrence to our ancestors for whom often, walking was the only means of transport.

As pagans, we often talk of the act of journeying as being central to our spirituality. Whether we track the inner paths of meditations, the shamanic journeys of healing and divination or the perfectly orchestrated journey of a well planned ritual for a rite of passage or celebration, the language of the journey is common to most of us. But, how often do we make a journey that is consciously and actually walked, step by step and moment by moment, a journey that may last a few days, a week, a month or even longer; surrendering ourselves completely to where that journey may take us and the challenges that may be encountered along the way? Of course there are many ways to create this kind of journey but as I discovered this week, a long distance walk is particularly powerful.

When my friend Sophie asked me at New Year if I would like to walk the Cotswold Way with her in the coming May, a 102.5 mile route that stretches from Chipping Campden, down and across the entirety of Gloucestershire, to Bath in Somerset, my immediate reaction was ‘YES!” quickly followed by a feeling of trepidation and the wondering of what I had let myself in for. I was a casual walker, easily capable of 7 or 8 miles without a problem, but I knew that that was not going to be adequate for this kind of journey where a pace of 10 -16 miles needed to be maintained every day for 8 days. Not only that, but we decided very early on not to use the services of a sherpa to carry our bags. We were going to do this properly; carrying everything we needed was an important part of the journey.

For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset.  We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.

Having trained extensively this spring, we both had a fair idea that we could cope with the maximum daily distance of 16 miles. But, we had no way of knowing whether we could cope with it day after day without actually doing it.  In the event, the repeated distance, carrying of a pack and the hot weather we were blessed with for the first three or four days became a recipe for blisters, sore feet, and a not insignificant amount of pain and it seemed to be so for many of the other walkers we met on route. We quickly realised that this too was a part of the journey and that the pain became a devotional act, a sacrifice to the gods of the landscape through which we passed and in sympathy with the many ancestral feet that had walked the path before us. We soon understood that pilgrimage is not supposed to easy and the satisfaction and achievement of reaching the end is in direct proportion to the trials experienced along the way.

We were overwhelmed too with hospitality, folk seeming to understand on some level the importance of what we were doing. We met friends, and relatives who took us in, fed and watered us, shared supper or a drink and walked with us along the way. Other walkers on the same journey became our companions and whilst we were all walking for very different reason, there was a shared understanding, each became an important part, the journey being as much about the people we met as the landscape we walked through. In Sophie’s words we “had one the most fabulous and memorable weeks of our lives. We giggled and sang our way along the Cotswold Way repeating the mantra that ‘pain is only sensation and will arise and pass away’, when the pain in our feet was hard to bear. We walked through blazing sun and howling gale, climbing up and down the escarpment time after time. We walked through bluebell and garlic filled woods, regaled by birdsong and the wind in the trees; over hill forts and long barrows covered in cowslips where we stopped for the odd extreme knitting session; crossed trunk roads and the M4 and finally arrived in Bath where we made offerings to Minerva at her spring,” tears running down our faces as we cast the traditional offerings of money into the blood-red waters, breathing the warmth and steam of her sanctuary whilst tourists snapped pictures and milled around oblivious. For most, the traditional end to the Cotswold way is the Abbey, but for us it was here, in the caves beneath the city.

Having completed the journey and today resting at home, I am left with a deep impression of the power of the pilgrimage. Its ability to challenge and focus us, provide a medium for the outward expression of an inner devotion to ancestors and landscape. I know that I will do it again and I know other pagans who are helping to resurrect that tradition within our religion where it is sadly lacking. For me it has been the ultimate experience of learning to walk this sacred land in a way I had not experienced before and one I hope that others might be inspired to explore.

With thanks to Chris Hastie you can see the route from our GPS tracks here

Very many congratulations to Sophie too, who raised over £1300 for Prostate Cancer UK. You can still sponsor her here

She who just had other things to do.

This post has been gestating so to speak, for some time now. It began in early spring last year (hence the slightly unseasonal references), got added to when Cat Treadwell posted about a similar subject last year and got completed today when I recieved yet another well meaning but ill-considered comment.

As the cycle turns again past the Spring equinox, the days lengthen and the sun warms, the world suddenly seems alive with creatures busy becoming, or preparing to become parents as if their lives depended on it. It is a little early yet for the baby birds and many other creatures, but there are lambs – albeit brought on early by artificial farming systems. Most other creatures wait a while for the sun to be a little warmer yet and the food sources to be more abundant. The sap is rising though, and the first scents of lust are in the air. It seems that each thing is starting to express that primary urge to procreate, indeed the goddess of motherhood, that deep, aching, yearning drive, begins (for the females at least) to obliterate all else. For me she is not ever loving, nurturing, soft and yielding, but a demanding bitch who will get her way at all costs and damn who gets hurt in the process. Spiders eat their mates to provide them with the energy to gestate and birth sometimes consumed in turn by their offspring. Frogs mate themselves literally to death to produce clouds of spawn, and Blue tits run themselves ragged to the point of exhaustion, sparing little for themselves as they stuff another worm down a gaping baby’s mouth. As a midwife, I know that motherhood can offer moments of utter beauty and tenderness, but I also know that a good amount of the time, it is not ‘nice’.

As pagans at this time of equinox, we start to get busy with eggs, obscene amounts of chocolate, hares, daffodils and other representations of the spring. We celebrate the first scents of warmer air, fertility and life, the growing fecund earth, our Mother. Motherhood: it is a central theme that runs through out just about every paganism throughout the world, but where does Maiden-Mother-Crone leave those of us who are intentionally childless and intend to remain so, or those who so desperately wanted children but cannot have them for whatever reason. What of the Bitch, Witch, Barren-Woman, Working-Woman, and Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do? She rarely features in the equation although she is abundant in Mythology. No, whichever way we look at it, the woman without children is an oddity, a challenge and often, the rest of society is just not quite sure what to do with her. If you are unable to have a child, in addition to having to deal with your own sense of grief and often rage, you are the subject of pity and hushed voices, ‘it’s so sad…, such a shame‘ the sense that no one quite knows what to say as if you have somehow failed in your essential duty. Conversely, woman who chose to be childless often appear to be unwitting prey to those in life who, bowled over by the wonder and joy of their own parenthood, consider it their personal mission in life to win you over, not realising that the source or their own joy is rarely, if ever, as interesting to the rest of the world.

It seems that as soon as a woman gets to a certain age, usually her 30’s, other women, always mothers themselves, seem to decide for you that your biological clock is undoubtedly ticking. How many times have I heard the phrases ‘so, it won’t be long now before…’, ‘you really don’t want to leave it too late…’, ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t, my children are my greatest joy..’ and other such encouragements to bite the bullet and join the mother club. As a woman in her 30’s who falls into the Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do category, on explaining my position I am invariably met with either pity or a knowing smile that says ‘one day you’ll crack and then you’ll realise what you’ve been missing.’ On posting something similar to Facebook the other day, irritated beyond measure by yet another of these comments, I was amazed at the other women and a good few men too who empathised. Childless for different reasons, the majority were irritated, hurt or baffled by the assumption that childbearing should be the normal thing to do, that anyone who goes by a different path is somehow not normal, has something wrong with them or simply will not be complete without a baby.

Without doubt, the fleetingly rare times in my life where I have been even remotely tempted to have a child have all been motivated by my ancestors. The understanding that we are at the front of a long line of inheritance that connects us back to earliest humanity and beyond is where, if there is any sense of it at all, my greatest feelings of duty and responsibility lie. If I don’t pass on that inheritance do I fail my ancestors in my genetic duty? Within a religion that holds such deep reverence for our ancestors, I think perhaps there is the tendency for pagans to beat ourselves with this particular ceremonial plank more than others. Yet, in striving to be a thinking, rational, wakeful human woman, in a world where over consumption runs rife within a growing population who not only demand to be fed and watered but comfortable with it, I would encourage every woman to make a conscious choice, wherever possible about childbearing. After all, having a child (or three) will undoubtedly be the biggest increase to your carbon footprint you will ever make, it doesn’t matter how many transatlantic fights you may have made in the past, they will pale in comparison. Apart from anything else, are my genes really so fabulous, that I just have to pass them on? I am not so special and the flow of humanity will undoubtedly continue whether I reproduce or not and I can be sure it will be just as, well… human. I would like to see motherhood as something women opt into consciously and deliberately rather than an opting out of which confounds societies unspoken expectations.

So whilst not negating the role of the mother here at all, I would like to share a celebration of the childless woman. The ones who made the choice not to, the ones who couldn’t, the ones who tore their souls open in grief at the failure and found peace on the other side, the ones who still have to find peace, the ones who never will, the spinsters, the ones who maintained their freedom with fierce courage in the face of society’s norms, growing roses and dancing in the rain. The unheard stories. Sisters I salute you.

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?