The Way to Dusty Death?

We were in Ulverston, Dean and I. We’d just climbed the famous ‘Hoad’ – a tall monument on the top of a tall hill that looks like a lighthouse… but isn’t. There’s some important symbology in that, but we’ll return to it later.

Light and dark….a walk in Glenlivet…including a view from the stone circle at the Doune of Dalmore toward Drumin castle…both scenes of coming derring-do on Sunday. Photo: Dean Powell.

He was on his way back from Somerset to northern Scotland – the Glenlivet area of the North Cairngorms, where he and his loved ones have their home. Our house in Cumbria is en-route, so the door is always open to break his journey. After a night involving Bernie’s excellent cooking and a glass of red wine or two, we decided that a local (ish) walk would put some air into the bloodstream for his second leg and return to the far north.

Ulverston is one of our local favourites. It’s about a half-hour journey up the fast Barrow road. A coffee in Ford Park and then the short but taxing climb up ‘The Hoad’ to get to the famous lighthouse that isn’t. It can be seen all over the expanse of Morecambe Bay. It’s actually a monument to the famous engineer Sir John Barrow.

We’d got our breath back by the time we got to the monument. The Silent Eye had recently carried out the ‘Jewel in the Claw’ spring workshop at Great Hucklow – our annual biggie. We had used a Shakespearean theme, casting one of our Californian visitors as Queen Elizabeth – ruling over a giant chessboard which was the royal court; and upon which the players moved with great caution… under her watchful eye.

Dean and Alionora had played two of the central characters: Lord Mortido and Lady Libido – death and life in the fullest sense. They were superb. Leaving the tiny village Dean had reflected that there might be scope for doing something else ‘Shakespearean’, in the form of a journey around Macbeth Country, centred in Grantown-on-Spey, not far from where he and Gordon live.

Now, on top of the world and next to the faux lighthouse, we began to discuss it in earnest.

It would involve several kinds of journey. First, it was a long way to travel; but we had all driven down to Dorset the year before for the similar summer weekend, so we knew we’d get the support from our hardy regulars…

Second, there had to be a dual journey in terms of both spiritual discovery and visiting the landscape. The event was to take place in a triangle of land between Grantown, the Findhorn Coast and the Macbeth castles just south of Inverness. There would be no lack of scenery! Dean had already assembled a set of places with that ‘special feel’, including a mysterious old church and a stone circle. Within this combined landscape he proposed leading a journey of self-discovery using an ancient magical symbol. Macbeth’s ‘witches’ had to be honoured – they were a very real force in the time of James VI of Scotland – and subsequently the English king on the death of Elizabeth I. Dean has an intensely esoteric background and is a qualified NLP therapist and teacher as well as the local leader of Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba. He has recently developed the idea of the ‘magical matrix’ and proposed to use this to accompany our journey in the highland landscape.

I hadn’t realised until he told me that the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. The event would mix his Scottish team and the Silent Eye, and we proposed it be called the Silent Unicorn.

Somewhat pleased with the plan, we took the long and winding path down from the Hoad to have a fruitful cafe lunch in Ulverston.

And now it is upon us. Like Macbeth we must earn our keep (sorry) and ‘strut and fret’ upon the magnificent stage of the highlands. Our weekend’s tower must be a true one and not false. Only with that intent – that something deeper is afoot, will we attract the intellectual and emotional harmony that so typifies these Silent Eye ‘landscape journeys’. By the time this is published, we will be leaving Cumbria, to join up with friends old and new from across the UK. We all face a long journey; but a very rewarding one.

For more information on joining us for one of the Silent Eye ‘discovery in the landscape’ weekends, click to see our forthcoming events, here.

The road to Inverness awaits….

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

“The best day, ever” in Eden

They were watching me from the side of a steep bank that frames the inner edge of a huge surface of concrete which will soon be Eden North, replicating – but with differences – the internationally famous Eden Project in Cornwall.

The space used to be Bubbles swimming pool and, before that, was the renowned Super Swimming Stadium, the centre of so many children’s holidays before their parents discovered you could get more reliable sunshine than Morecambe’s on a suddenly affordable Spanish Costa Brava.

They all died a kind of death, then, the Victorian seaside towns… But some of us keep the faith, if only for that steaming mug of a ‘milky coffee’ in the depths of freezing winter, when we’ve finished the dog-walk.

The two young girls. I had seen them arrive a few minutes, before – with their mother. She looked the very picture of care-worn but caring. It’s a look you see a lot in poor seaside towns… Morecambe has been a long time in the doldrums, but there is a light on the horizon; one begun by Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the Midland Hotel – a surviving Art Deco masterpiece.

We had the first night of our honeymoon there, in 2010, a year after its opening. Bernie is from Morecambe… well, actually, Heysham, its sister town a few miles to the south. It’s pronounced Hee-sham, not Hay-sham. She’s very particular about that, so I thought I’d better include it! We both love Art Deco, and had followed the hotel’s rebirth with a great deal of pleasure.

The new Eden North promises to make a great difference to this once-proud resort. It can’t happen soon, enough. The Eden people know what we have never forgotten; that across the vastness of Morecambe Bay lies the whole vista of the Lake District…

It takes a seed of something to bring true life back to a place or a person who has become sad… in body, spirit, career, in their home, in their life… Sometimes, you don’t know you have the power to do this until you find yourself equipped – often in the most unexpected way.

I looked at the frustrated collie and I threw the cheap frisbee again. The wind was behind me and defeated what little aerodynamic soundness it had. You don’t get much from the seafront beach stop for three quid. It had been two, but I decided to add another two ‘tennis’ balls to the bag so that we had a spare in case Tess (the collie) lost one. Her frustration with Dad had begun when we got to North Beach for her usual ball or frisbee session of sandy madness and discovered that the ball and chucker were still in the back of the departing Toyota, now too far away towards Sainsbury’s and shopping to call back. “Perhaps a stone or two?” I had said, weakly, into the betrayed hazel eyes, knowing the result…

Now, twenty minutes and five hundred yards further south, the cheap frisbee was suddenly seized by the wind and carried along the vast concrete expanse in a motion that I can only describe as ‘skittering’. Round and round it turned, whilst travelling at increasing speed towards the grassy boundary – within sight of the Midland Hotel.

The collie’s interest was renewed by this magical motion and, howling, she sped after it, only to snap her strong jaws over its momentarily upended motion and break it in two.

You don’t get much from the beach shop for two quid.

The two young girls were now only yards away from me – and squealing with delight at Tess’s antics. I turned to look at their joyous faces – full of simple happiness – and asked if they’d like to have a go… but I could see the disappointment as they gazed on the distant plastic ruin, now in two bits and still being blown onto the distant grass.

The tennis balls! I had forgotten those…

“Would you like a go with Tess and a tennis ball?” I asked, looking up at an anxious Mum still on the promenade. I smiled and waved, showing her that her lovely kids were in safe hands.

“Could we?” asked the eldest girl.

“Of course,” I said, delving into the bag and extracting one of the new tennis balls. The eldest sister smiled and took it.

“We’re on holiday,” she said.

“I’m on holiday, too,” added her younger sister, looking very proud of the fact that they were in this adventure together.

“How about you take turns,” I said, gently.

The eldest bobbed her head. The youngest almost bowed hers. Tess trotted up to her new friends, tail wagging, mightily. Things were looking up… The girls stared adoringly at the collie.

When both girls had taken a turn, the eldest offered me back the ball.

“You can have a few more goes if you like?” I said.

And that’s when it happened… The elder sister looked across at her mum and turned back to me, saying, as she danced a step, “This is the best day ever…”

I can only say that I was broken at that moment; and fought to suppress the tears that formed, not wanting to spoil their fun. That such a simple act of kindness could have brought them so much joy was so very… unexpected.

I pretended to fumble with the ball and composed myself.

“How about we have one go each and three rounds of it all?” I asked.

“That would be nine chucks!” said the younger girl, laughing at the chance to show off her arithmetic.

Nine chucks later they looked up at their mother, who was moving slowly along the prom and waving at them. She looked happy with the turn of events, though she had kept her distance.

The youngest gave me back our ball. “Thank you!’ she beamed. “We’re off to the beach, now.”

I could see the excitement on their faces at this further delight. And then I remembered the small carrier bag by my ankles.

“Do you have your beach tennis balls?” I asked, conspiratorially.

Two earnest little heads shook, negatively.

“Better take these, then,” I winked, passing them the little white bag. “Go now! Your mum is waiting!”

They danced off, but the eldest turned to wave, one final time, before they took their mother’s hand.

My own young grandchildren – two girls – live in Australia. One day when they visit, I hope to bring them to see the new Eden; and point down to where the barren concrete was; on the best day, ever…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Dancing with the ghost in the machine

If you’ve ever been involved with anything of an ‘amateur dramatic’ nature, you will know that moment: the protagonist, hated until the final few moments (when the greater picture is revealed) shuffles off, in rags, to his doom; and the shared and questioning silence longs for the gentle and poignant soothing that only the right music can bring….

Screech, click, screech, ping, wheeeeeedle…. .

Frantic sound of fingers fiddling.

Screech, click, screech, ping, wheeeeeedle…. and then the final piece, a gentle Sufi melody cuts in… only it’s about twenty decibels too high in the flying fingers’ frantic search for sound… any sound.

The much maligned King Gilgamesh (who turns out to be only 99% schmuck) looks to the heavens in an unscripted gesture. Everyone is stunned… but for all the wrong reasons.

It didn’t happen, not yet… but it’s time to make sure it can’t…

Amateur actors – our annual workshop participants – such as the Silent Eye seems to be able to attract year on year, are wonderful people. They are enthusiastic, flexible and multi-tasking. They stand, clutching their scripts, in the middle of a space invested with spiritual emotion, power and purpose and give their all… to such an extent that, come the start of Sunday afternoon, no-one wants to leave and break up the intense camaraderie that these warm and mystical adventures generate.

There are no mistakes, just real-time variations in the script. Like Jazz, the best bits can be improvised, often with humour from above… Ask Barbara, who we once completely lost, Schrödinger-like, in the middle of Act Three in the centre of the room. To this day, no-one knows where she went.

Being the technician can be a difficult job. And, it’s near impossible to be one of the characters in the mystery play and the technician. So, the partial answer is to make the soundtrack as free-standing as possible.

The problem is the technology, or, rather, the combination of technology and the media – sound – that is required to be ‘piped’ through the technology. Most domestic music players are just not up to the job.

The epic stories of Gilgamesh the King are the oldest known legends on Earth. Using this as a basis, Stuart France has re-envisaged the story in five acts of ritual drama, where everyone attending plays their part, large or small. Stuart and Sue Vincent have crafted a workbook of nearly two hundred pages of beautifully laid out script.

I have been volunteered to play the part of Gilgamesh, but since I have taken our technology forward, too, I’m taking no chances…

Gone are the multiple CD machines, laid out at strategic points in the temple space of the mystery play; each one involving a lightning sprint from compass point to compass point. Gone, even, is the use of an uncooperative Apple iTunes with its incomplete staging of cues. Gone is any notion of carrying around the sound with a portable speaker – one of the past’s more heroic failures…

Instead of Screech, click, screech, ping, wheeeeeedle…. or just plain silence, we have this on the iPad screen:

It’s a deck… a sound-deck in software. It’s what professionals use to control the music and lighting for stage shows, moving with consummate timing from event to event as the production progresses. If you were into William Gibson’s sci-fi (Burning Chrome etc) it’s what the pre-internet generation used to ‘jack into’ the ‘net and control the world with…

Tired of playing games that couldn’t really argue back, they began to design real software; masterpieces that really could kick-ass… but in a good way.

This scaled down masterpiece of software, called iMiX Pro, runs on an Apple iPad – mine. This is not to say that it does all the work for you. Oh, no… shoot, man, there’s a bucketload of stuff y’all need to do up frooont! (Sorry, that’s my inner Texan coming out). I’ve been sitting at this ‘deck’ for two days and only now… am I winning. And that’s the thing with these systems, you have to get the music into the machine before the ‘ghost’ that is the combination of producer and good software design come together in glorious expletives that do sound decidedly Texan.

In the beginning, there is the raw music, or other sound files; so, as before, you have to get them onto (in my case) your Mac and into… Hmmmm iTunes.

In the process, you have to re-name the tracks you want to use so that, when they re-appear in the iMiX software, they are recognisable. So, lovingly and carefully, you work out a naming scheme that shortens the track names in order to see something of their name in the individual panels on the iPad screen. The above first window is the result.

Next, you need to take the original files and convert them into one of Apple’s ‘Playlists’. These are just collections of songs. So it’s easy. You group all the original tracks and select ‘Add to Playlist’… and off she goes. You then have all your music in a second and more pliable container.

The use of a Playlist is essential because they have to be in this format to get the group of tracks across to the iPad. Along the way you get to put them in order – no mean feat with over twenty tracks. But, finally, they are ready to be beamed (okay, wired) across to their new portable home – a bit like the NASA lunar lander making a bid for freedom from the orbiter module. Once you’ve set off for the weekend, the iPad is on its own.

An hour later, you finally figure out how you did it last time and the transfer is complete… except the Apple transfer software has lost your carefully constructed sequencing and you’ve just got the order it decides you need on the iPad. They’re all in there, somewhere, you’ve just got to find each one again. So, you think about making paper list – or contact Sue, who recognises sleep-deprivation and provides one as a list of what should be happening in each act.

A small bottle of gin later, you realise that it doesn’t matter what the Apple software has done to your weekend’s sequence because the iMiX’s colossus of a DECK is about to rescue you!

Look back to the original diagram. Each of those vertical ‘pods’ is a beautifully programmed home for your hard-won music and sound tracks. And it offers you total control over how and when that track is played…. heaven.

You can control the volume; you can trim the clip regardless of what any other piece of software has done to it. You can select its unique fade-in and fade-out. And written up the side of the ‘pod’ is the full name of the track you so lovingly created…Texan sounds…

So, two days after I began, we have the Deck, fully programmed and ready to be operated, in lightning-fast real time, by our mega-techno dude who insists on being nameless.

But he’s related to one of the Directors.

There will be no ‘Screech, click, screech, ping, wheeeeeedle…. or just plain silence’. So, while I won’t actually be operating the Deck, I’ll be the ghost in the machine…

Houston, we’re good to go.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to best play that ego-maniac, Gilgamesh…There are lots of ego-maniacs in the world at the moment. Very timely, that, Stuart…

Wish us luck… please. Even better, come and join us. We can fit in a few more people if you’d like to join this merry but sincere band. And we promise that you, too, won’t want to leave, come Sunday lunch…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

North-easterly: Legends…

There are many stories associated with the castles of the Northumbrian coastline, some historical, others apocryphal, but it is often buried within the myths and legends that some fragment of truth may be found. Few tales will pique the interest as much as when dragons or the name of King Arthur are mentioned. Stuart has told the story of the Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh, in which a princess becomes a dragon, and were that the only tale the castle had to tell, it would be enough. But the castle has not always been known by its present name. It was once at the heart of the ancient realm of Bryneich, or Bernicia, and the castle was known as Din Guarie, a name that comes down to us through the Arthurian legends as Dolorous Guard….

The Dream of Lancelot~ Study by Edward Burne-Jones

The Castle of Dolorous Guard was the home of Sir Brian of the Isles, who some call King Bran Hen… Bran the Old… a cruel and evil knight and the sworn enemy of King Arthur. Sir Brian had learned enchantments from the Lady of the Lake and turned them to sate his own vicious pleasures. He took great delight, so the story goes, in imprisoning and torturing both men and women alike.

Many of Arthur’s knights were lost to Sir Brian’s enchantments, for whenever a knight approached the castle, they were faced by a band of ten warriors at each of the two gates and were forced to fight. Many made the attempt, but none succeeded. Even Gawain, one of the greatest knights, was captured and cast into the dungeons with the rest. As each knight was imprisoned and their helmets hung upon the wall as trophies, a mysterious gravestone sprang up outside the castle, bearing their name and they were lost to the world.

Sir Lancelot du Lac, had been raised by the Lady of the Lake and had her favour. He asked Arthur for some quest with which he could prove himself and was sent north to Bamburgh in search of the lost knights, armed with a magical shield.

Lancelot conquered the guardian warriors expelled Sir Brian, who fled south to Pendragon Castle, but the enchantment could not be broken until he had spent forty nights under its roof. Exploring his conquest, Lancelot came upon a large metal slab encrusted with jewels, which bore the inscription:

Only he who conquers La Doloreuse Garde

will be able to lift this slab,

and he will find his name beneath it.

Summoning all his strength, Lancelot raised the slab and found beneath it another inscription:

Here will repose Lancelot of the Lake, the son of King Ban.

Abandoned as a babe by the Lake and left to be found and raised by its Lady, it was only now that Lancelot learned of his royal lineage, and he knew that this would be his final place of rest.

In the castle’s chapel, Lancelot found a door which led deep underground and into a cave. The earth shook, and a deafening noise filled the cave. As he entered, two copper knights armed with huge swords attacked. Lancelot did not falter, defeating the metallic monsters and moving deeper into the cavern. There he found a wailing well, guarded by an axe-wielding monster. Lancelot fought with all his might, breaking his shield upon the creature’s hide. At the end, he throttled it with his bare hands and cast it down into the well.

Catching his breath, he raised his head and saw a beautiful maiden clad in copper and in her hand she held two keys which she offered to the victorious knight. Taking them, he realised that they were the keys to end the enchantment. One unlocked a  copper pillar containing thirty copper pipes that screamed. The other unlocked a casket from which a whirlwind escaped. Then, at last, the castle was free of the evil spell.  The mysterious gravestones and the trophy helmets disappeared, the lost knights were found and released from their prison and Lancelot took the castle for his own.

Lancelot renamed the castle Joyous Guard, filling it with colour and light. Delicate bridges linked the towers upon which were carved fabulous beasts, the dark chambers were ablaze with candles and the rich glow of tapestries and the walls were plastered and gilded so that, catching the rays of the rising sun across the sea, the light of the castle could be seen far across the land.

It is told that many knights and their ladies were his guests, including Arthur and Guinevere, his queen, with whom Lancelot fell in love. His love was returned and the two, loving their king, were broken hearted.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Lancelot allowed the ill-fated Tristan to stay at Joyous Guard with Isolde after the two had fled from her husband, King Mark.

Accompanying Arthur to Camelot, Lancelot’s love for the queen was exposed and Guinevere was condemned to death. Lancelot rescued her from the pyre and carried her to Joyous Guard, but the tragedy unfolded, Arthur laid siege to the castle, inflicting heavy damage, and Lancelot was forced to return to the land of his birth. The castle sank back into gloom, becoming once again the castle of Dolorous Guard.

Yet, the story tells that Lancelot returned. His body was brought back to his castle and laid in a vault. It lays there still, buried by the sands of time and veiled by the mist that rolls in from the sea.

Magic carpet…

 

“I dunno… It’s still not right.”
“I did it exactly as you said this time.”
“Even so, there’s something missing…”

My son has once again asked me to do the impossible. It is, you might think, just a small thing. Something that I should be able to do without the slightest trouble. He wants me to make him a cup of tea.

The problem is that the tea in question is the exotically spiced chai masala with which he fell in love in India and which I have never tasted. For him it is the stuff of memory, conjuring visions of people and places, scents and sounds…if we brew it even close to right.

For me, it is a mystery. I have never been to India. The ‘chai’ I have encountered here is a pallid imitation of the aromatic brew he remembers, redolent with cardamom, cloves and pepper. I do not know what I am supposed to be brewing.

Research online is no help. So far it has yielded a hundred different versions of how best to brew the chai, from starting with the spices and blending your own, to the use of tea bags…which simply do not come close.  The proportion of milk to water, the cream content, the time to simmer the spices…every possible variant is available…and we have tried a good many of them. The tea we finally settled upon comes close… but has only yielded a few cups that have held the magic to carry memory across continents.

My son, meanwhile, in his search for the perfect cup of chai, has developed a passion for the stuff. There is what looks suspiciously like an altar to tea in his home, where arcane potions are brewed that fill the air with fragrance. Turmeric, ginger, rose petals and oranges… teas that are green, black and white… a far cry from the classic mahogany brew I grew up with in Yorkshire. There are spices in there that I would never have associated with the tea caddy.

“I know what’s missing,” said my son after another abortive attempt. I was all ears…we have tried just about everything, turning his kitchen into an alchemist’s den and me into a frazzled, frustrated hobbit. “The secret ingredient….”
“Oh?”
“Love.” And there it was.

He was absolutely right. Chai is a chore… while for my son, it is a magic carpet back to joy. The best cups of chai are the ones he has made. The chai holds no emotional connection for me, except that I would like to get it right for him. I cook for him every day, and love is part of that process, both my love of my son and my love of real and exotic cookery and that emotion finds its way into the food… and affects how I work.

It is easy enough to understand why we enjoy doing the things we love and how hard it can be to do the things we dislike doing, but it is also easy to forget or overlook the simple fact that to render a service or perform a chore with love means that it is no longer a chore.

Throughout our lives we are asked to do things we would normally avoid, tackle jobs we do not wish to do or at which we would normally cringe. When we do them for love, there is little thought of how it makes us feel… we just get on with it. Whether it is cleaning up after a sick child, burning the midnight oil to get something finished or going out of our way for a friend, love takes the sting out of most things.

We can do the same thing for ourselves too, if we believe that we too are worthy of the efforts of our love…and many of us don’t. We do not even think about it, but if we lavished the same care on ourselves as we do on those we love, life might feel a little different.

Long ago I read of the Path of the Hearthfire…an approach to life that takes the little things of every day and turns them into acts of love that go beyond the earthly emotion. It is a truly magical path, perfectly suited to the hectic lifestyles we lead, with the responsibilities of work, the running of a home and the raising of children. The smallest thing, from dusting the furniture, to walking the dog, can become a sacred act if approached with love and, in doing so, we bring ourselves closer to the Source, the fountain of being from which we draw our lives.

Love adds something to whatever it is we are doing… an indefinable quality, that ‘secret ingredient’ that makes us take that little extra time, a little extra care… and that can make all the difference, even to a cup of tea.

Photos: Nick Verron

Bittersweet

The misty dawn blushed a soft, rosy pink, probably  embarrassed by the number of clichés it was inviting. It had begun with a delicate glow, suffusing the rising mist with gold as I shivered on the doorstep, then painted the world in pastel colours, as gentle as an apology. As the sun rose, the temperature plummeted, the swirling mists turned to fog and you could almost see the ice crystals forming. Another Monday morning was born…

The sudden frost highlighted every detail of plants still resolutely green, each strand of spider silk and the edge of every fallen leaf. The ordinary became beautiful. Details that are overlooked a hundred times a day were limned in crystal and became unmissable… yet, but for necessity, I would have taken the option of comfort, stayed warm indoors and seen nothing. As I scraped the ice from the windscreen of the car, I was once again struck by how simple it is to learn the lessons of life by observing Nature at work. My own experience of the morning was one of frozen fingers and yet, the bitter frost served only to highlight a beauty that might otherwise have been missed.

Necessity and inevitability so often lead us into bitter and painful situations, but without them as a contrast, would we…could we…truly appreciate all that is right in our world? Would we notice a dawn if the sky always wore the colours of sunrise or do we need to experience darkness in order to understand the essence of light? Looking around too, I noted that while some plants were still green and would remain so in spite of the coming cold of winter, others were sere and brittle, giving every appearance of being mere skeletons of the vibrant life they once wore. Yet here too, Nature teaches, for beneath the soil, those brittle bones wait only for spring to grow once more… different in appearance, perhaps, but still essentially  the same.

There was nothing new in those thoughts… no fanfare, no great revelation. It was no more than a gentle reminder, a reassurance that we are never called upon to make sense of this world and its upheavals on our own. There is always a teacher on our doorstep, always a deeper wisdom than our own, older and with experience of all that has ever been. It knows the tides of night and day, of winter and summer, freedom and necessity…and it is poised to teach us, every day. We do not always listen, we are wayward students and easily distracted, but the earth knows her children well and repeats her cycles, waiting for our chattering minds to quiet and allow us to understand. And when we do…when we listen… sometimes, it seems as if she smiles.

Sparks of light…

Bonfire night. In Britain, it is celebrated on November 5th every year to commemorate the death of Guy Fawkes. He was the conspirator charged with lighting the fuse on the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder secreted in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It was a time of religious intolerance, when politics, power and religion were intimately linked. King Henry VIII had broken with Rome  with the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and for seventy years and through the reigns of the last Tudor monarchs, the pendulum had swung between religious factions. When James VI of Scotland, son of the beheaded Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, the Catholic community hoped for a return of their faith and position. King James made it clear that this would not be the case and a plot was devised to assassinate the king by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening when the monarch would be present.

The plot was unmasked and Guy Fawkes found, arrested and tortured. He was not the ringleader…just the man handling the explosives, but he was sentenced to death for treason. To escape being hung, drawn and quartered, he leapt to his death from the scaffold and broke his neck.

And we celebrate this. Until 1959 it was required by law that we celebrate, though the decree was for attendance at church and a giving of thanks.  Today we seldom look beyond the effigy of the ‘guy’ that is burned on bonfires, or the fireworks that are set off to mimic the unexploded barrels.

During my childhood, bonfires were communal affairs. Families or neighbours would come together around a small bonfire, sharing the fireworks and the food prepared by each household. For weeks beforehand the children would have been ‘chumping’… finding wood for the fires… and making the ‘guy’. The effigy would be paraded or taken house to house and pennies would be given that went towards the cost of fireworks. When you think about it, the whole thing is rather gruesome, but the history and its implications were but vaguely known, and deemed of little importance. To us, as children, it was just fun.

Bonfires go back a lot further than Guy Fawkes, though. As far back as the reach of history there have been fires… bonefires, banefires… fires of prophecy, blessing, purification and celebration. Fires to ward off the darkness or welcome the light. Fires that marked the turning of the seasons and the sun-tides. How far back such traditions may go, we do not know, but we do know that fire was used in many of the oldest stone circles as part of whatever ceremonies were performed there.

Those sacred flames brought communities together to bless the cattle, see out the old year and rekindle the new, to celebrate the arrival of spring at Beltane and the promise of its first stirrings in the dark womb of winter. But even within living memory, we have used such fires too as the gathering point for anger, hatred and intolerance. They have been used for the burning of books banned by tyranny and to symbolise the destruction of our human kinship.

I prefer the old ways, when fire brought us together rather than symbolising death, division and destruction.  For day to day needs, we each have a flame, a place of warmth and light, at the centre of our own lives. When we bring those flames together in celebration of something shared by all… like the seasons of the sun… we are building something wider than our own lives, reestablishing community and, in sharing time and laughter with our neighbours, erasing the fear and ignorance that causes intolerance. It doesn’t have to be a bonfire…the heart and the hearth share more than just the letters of their names.

 

Hallowed…

We recently shared a simple meditation as a mark of love and respect for those who have passed, particularly within the last year. I thought long and hard about writing about what was a very personal and emotional experience, and the only answer I could find was that it was meant to be shared. Such a gift was not for me alone…  

I never really understood Halloween as a child. In Yorkshire, in my childhood, it was not the pumpkin-laden celebration it has now become… the fun came later with Mischief Night on the fourth of November, where, along with the tradition of giving soul cakes to callers on Halloween, you can see the shared origins with ‘trick or treating’. Mischief Night was a time for playing tricks on neighbours, and every year we were lectured in school about what was and was not acceptable. Tying door handles to metal dustbin lids then knocking on doors and running away was a favourite and considered perfectly acceptable behaviour on that one night of the year.

Mischief night was followed by the flames and fireworks of Bonfire Night. Despite its association with Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot of 1605, in truth the bonfires hark back to the old rites of Samhain when the hearthfires were extinguished and ritually rekindled to mark the end of summer and the coming of the winter darkness. That always made sense… it is in darkness that new life is conceived and grown, just as spring is born of winter.

Halloween was different though; I was never really given a good explanation for it. For a child, it was a time of shadows and mystery with a dash of excitement. Even thinking back to that time calls up memories of my mother’s kitchen. There would be brittle bonfire toffee made with black treacle and creamy toffee apples setting on their sticks. Yorkshire parkin, the dark, spiced oatmeal cake, freshly baked in preparation for Bonfire Night and cooling in tins. There would be soul cakes too, marked with a cross, covering the worktops. And old tales would be told as we roasted chestnuts on the open fire… folktales guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine, like that of the Hand of Glory.

The most evocative memory though is the Halloween lantern. Unlike today when the easier-to-carve and more impressive pumpkin is king, our lanterns were made from turnips. Just thinking about those lanterns calls up that pungent and peculiar smell of warm, singed turnip, candleblack and hot wax. A large turnip, about the size, and preferably the shape, of a human head, would be hollowed and carved. There was a knack to the removal of the rock-hard inner flesh and carving the face was so difficult it always looked primitive and menacing, especially once the candle was lit within. The pale orange and purple skin with the flickering flame made it look livid and corpse-like.  This would be ceremoniously set on the doorstep… to ward off evil spirits, or so we were told.

Traditional Irish Jack o’ lantern carved from a turnip. Image: Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia

I have often wondered just how far back that tradition really goes. The most common legend these days is the Irish tale of Jack who cheated the devil of his death, but with Samhain’s roots going back at least to the Celtic peoples, perhaps it has a deeper meaning in the mysterious cult of the head in which, according to historians, the soul was believed to reside.

But in spite of stories and legends, no-one ever really explained to my satisfaction what Halloween was really about. There was something that intrigued me, something that, even then, held an echo of ancient sacredness. All Hallows Eve was the night of the dead, a festival that seems to have been shared, in one form or another, by most cultures throughout history.

In my childhood, the explanations fell into two main camps. Some took the view that the darkness brought evil spirits out to roam that one night of the year, others told that it was a time when the dead could, and would, return. All seemed to agree that it was a night when the veil between realities was thin enough to allow spirit to cross and, in one way or another, interact with humans. For a child living next door to a graveyard, it was an uneasy night… and I was glad of the lantern on the doorstep.

 

It was not until I was in my late teens that the night of the dead began to make some kind of sense. I read a fictionalised life of Pythagoras by Jean-Claude Frère, in which he mentioned the festivals in ancient Greece where the dead were invited to return. The way he told it, the departed were invited to taste once more the joys of the flesh by using the bodies of living relatives. I had no idea if that was historically correct, but I could see the reasoning behind such a festival, even though it did not sit right with me. Why should the departed wish to return from the wonders of Elysium to this narrow existence?

I have always believed that what we know as life on this earth is a pale, constricted shadow compared to the life of the soul. Growing up in my rather odd family, there was never any question about whether or not the soul survived death, though there were a number of differing views on both the nature of that soul and the life beyond this one.

In spite of one branch of the family being involved in communication with the departed and their desire to have me trained as a medium, I always had reservations on that score. Something was being contacted, of that I was convinced, but I had my doubts about whether it was really Uncle Jim or Great Aunt Annie on the other end of the line. Was eternity not big enough for them? Did they really need or wish to come back to chat about mundane things? Wouldn’t they need a better reason to pierce the veil than whether or not the cat had given birth to her kittens? And anyway, should we really be pestering them when they had gone? Maybe they had better things to do…

While pestering the dead goes against the grain with me, honouring and remembering those we have loved and feel we have lost is a different thing. For Samhain this year, we shared a simple ritual in which we opened our hearts to those who had passed, inviting them to share the moment in love. In my mind, I was picturing my friends and family, those I have known and loved who have left this world. Had I been asked, I could have named them and would probably have said that the purpose of the ritual was to express our love and respect for them… a moment of remembrance and gratitude for their place in our lives and hearts. Preconceptions are wonderful things.

Some will call it imagination. Others may see only a buried grief and unshed tears unleashed. For me, the value of such an experience is in how it changes a life, not in how it is defined or explained away.

Closing my eyes in meditation, I listened to the music playing softly in the background, but instead of calling up the faces of the departed, it seemed my arms were open wide and filled with children. I had never seen them, and yet I knew them… lost babies who had never reached their birth. Children who had never been held filled grandma’s arms, hugging me as I held them, and although I wept, it was for love and beauty, not for grief.

They appeared as they would have done had they grown and they were beautiful. Without words, I was assured of their wellbeing. They were never lost. They had not needed to be born in order to bring the warmth of love into the world.

At first, I thought they had simply come to be held… and they had, but not in the way I assumed. They had not come to receive but to give. The very human gift of a cuddle was for me, not for them. They, who are love and light, have no need…

Finally, I glimpsed the purpose of the night of the dead. They have no need to return, such need, like the sense of loss, is our own. When the veil between the worlds seems fragile and we invite them in with love and memory, we can lay aside grief and touch again the joy of their presence, knowing that it has never left us, even if it has only ever lived in our hearts. The reality of that presence is in itself an affirmation and it is both a healing and a blessing… and such moments are indeed hallowed.

A Circle of Hands by Alethea Kehas

Reblogged from Not Tomatoes:

I have been thinking about harmony and unity. About how, over the course of hundreds, if not thousands of years, we have moved away from the circle to form the line.

I have been thinking about the quest of the individual striving for purpose by trying to get at the head of the line, not realizing the line is an illusion.

I have been thinking about how we are birthed into human form to explore this illusion, but not to hold onto it. For there is nothing to hold onto. No hands to join your palms.

Last Friday, in my continued quest to learn the mysteries of the land near where I live, I visited the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum with a friend of mine. The museum, founded by Bud and Nancy Thompson, several years after Nancy taught my third grade class at Canterbury Elementary School, is deliberately arranged in the form of a circle. When you walk the rooms of artifacts recovered across the United States, your eyes pick up patterns. Themes are shared throughout the native cultures that join the people in sacred truth. The circle is one of them.

There is, by its inherent nature, no beginning or end to the circle. The line, when drawn in this form curves back to itself, and in doing so becomes part of a greater whole that never ends. Here separation is impossible. If there is a break in the circle, it ceases to be whole.

A Continuous Circle of Hands

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