Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

The ultimate robbery?

sheffield chesterfield hare 590It was going to be one of those conversations…

“… So what do you think happens then?”

“Nothing… non-existence.”

“So what is there to fear in that?”

“Well, I’ll stop existing!” he said, as if that should explain it.

“But if you don’t exist… you won’t exist to know about it. So why be afraid?” I watched the wheels turn, yet even in acceptance of the logic, there was a kickback of ‘yeah, but’. Myself, I am convinced of the survival of the spark of being… not necessarily the ‘me’ I know… perhaps more of ‘me’ than I know, yet not the ‘me’ who walks through life daily and looks out through brown eyes. Not the personality.

I have the best of both worlds, so to speak. If I am right, then there cannot be a reason to fear. If I am wrong, ‘I’ won’t exist to know about it… so there can be no reason to fear.

Dying, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Like most people, I worry about the manner in which the Reaper comes calling, even though, when he does, whatever means he imposes will,by definition, be finite.

In an ideal world I would die like my great-grandmother… in her own bed, surrounded by her family and fully aware of what was happening and how. But the world seldom delivers ideal situations and like most people the manner of transit sort of matters. Death itself, though, holds no terror…. no more than birth and just as inevitable, once the process of life incarnate has begun.

“It is dissolution you are afraid of?”

“Yep.” Now, you see, for me there is a subsuming into something greater than our individuality, a loss of the personal self, perhaps, but that personality is only a fragmentary reflection of what we are.

“Ego death.” My interlocutor bristled at that… the connotation of the word ‘ego’ raises spectres of selfishness, yet it should only raise the idea of self centred being. No, he wasn’t going to like that either. Let’s say, ‘a being who looks out at the world from its own central point of focus’ then.

He growled a disclaimer. Dissolution. The loss of who we see ourselves as being now… the only aspect of self we really feel we know. This is what most of us fear when we think of death rather than dying… and probably why we avoid the issue so much in our modern, egocentric society. We view death almost as the ultimate robbery, a violation of who we are.

It wasn’t always thus; once the dead were honoured and their transition seen as just another rite of passage. The bones of the ancestors were kept and venerated, the presence of their spirit welcomed at the hearth; their wisdom, gleaned over a lifetime and beyond, revered.

It is hard to get our heads around the concept of our own ‘not being’; the dissolution of our personality is quite literally unthinkable… how to imagine a state where thought, emotion… we…are not? There are many who attribute the belief in some kind of survival after death as simply a fear-reaction to that unimaginable oblivion. Yet for many of us there is a simple, inner certainty that there is more to it than that.

Yet does it truly matter? Whatever we believe… unless we believe in all the tortures of the various hells… there should be no need to fear. And regardless of what lies beyond the gates of life, we still have to live each day in the world as best we can. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we will meet then, so much as it matters whether we have lived our lives as if they matter… because every single life does; in our uniqueness we shape the face of the world with every breath and we owe it to ourselves and to each other to make each breath count.

A link in the chain

sunset over the hills

“… and one of these days you will know a world in which I no longer exist.”
“I don’t know that I can imagine that.”
“Possibly not. I have always been part of your world. Before you were born, you could say that I was your world… all your physical experience, at least, came through me…”
“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way before…”
“…so a world without me is not within your experience, and might be as hard for you to imagine as a world without you. No point of reference.”

The subject of mortality had been brought to our attention by the passing of a neighbour and friend, a woman whose kindness and wisdom had brought something special to the world. The simple Quaker funeral of a shared silence had been both beautiful and moving, as we each turned our thoughts to how her presence had changed our lives, making the moment one of gratitude and recognition instead of an occasion given solely to grief. Her actions had been the small ones of every day, her life outwardly unremarkable… and yet she had made a huge difference to the lives of her family, friends and neighbours. From her funeral to a deeper conversation was not a big step.

It was an interesting discussion. Because most of us live what we consider to be rather ordinary lives, we do not realise how big an impact we might make. We seldom think about how different things might be for others had we not been around. What might, or might not have happened had we never been.

For a start, how do you imagine not being? You might imagine your own demise… and, in melodramatic moments, there may even be a vague satisfaction or discontent when you consider the aftermath of that event within your intimate circle. A sort of ‘you’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ scenario… even though you will not be there to know about it.  You may be able to picture a future from which you are missing… but when you do so, you are looking at it through your own eyes and therefore it is a false image… you will not be there to see it. The ‘you’ you are now will no longer exist.

Even less can we conceive of a world in which we have never been. Any attempt to subtract ourselves from the reality we know, will have so many ramifications that such a world truly is impossible to imagine.  The thousands of lives we have affected or will affect, directly or indirectly, from the moment of our conception, down the generations, to the furthest ends of time, would each of them be changed had we never come into being. Many of those lives might never exist, were we never to have been. Subtract just one person from existence… not by death, which is a natural part of life, but by erasing them from the annals of time altogether… and the whole course of human history would inevitably change.

It is difficult to accept that any one of us could be that important. We are conditioned to think otherwise… we are, most of us, too small on the stage of history to play much of a part, or so we believe… and yet every one of us is a necessary link in the chain of human being as we know it. The smallest action of least of us can create a domino effect through countless lives and generations, and we have no way of knowing where the chain reaction might end or what it might ultimately inspire.

Does it serve any practical purpose to know that one of our descendants, generations into some unknown future, might find a cure for cancer or invent the device that will damn the world? Perhaps not… we cannot control the future to that extent. We can only help shape the possibilities that come within our reach. And that we can do.

We are not only essential links in the chain of existence, but we are, inevitably, each of us teachers too. The way we live our lives sets an unconscious example that may inspire others, or against which they will react and rebel. The way in which others react is out of our control… only our own choices and attitudes are within it, and most of those are our own reactions to or against the actions of others. It is a complicated web of interaction, and we are responsible for our own thread within it.

We may never know how our actions affect the lives of others. A simple smile may light up an otherwise dark day for a stranger in the street, a small kindness may alter a mood, every word we speak and every action we take may be an example for someone else. We do not need to know what effect our lives may have in the greater story of humanity, but we owe it to ourselves to walk in awareness of the infinite possibilities that surround us every day.

At the end of the funeral, everyone present had reached out to shake the hand of their neighbours, a simple human touch. Faces were solemn as we paid our final respects, but it was remarkable how many eyes smiled at each other, as each of us remembered our friend. It had been a silent celebration of a life well lived… one small thread in the story… but one which touched the heart and set an example of empathy and care that many will carry forward into our own lives.  “She shone, you know. There was just something about her…” said my son. Just by being herself, our friend changed the world. So can you.

The human cost #Remembrance

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years ago, the Armistice came into effect and the guns fell silent after four years of horror. The Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, was over and the survivors of the conflict would be able to come home. In fact, we have known not one year of peace since that date.

No-one knows how many would never come home from the Great War. Between military and civilian deaths, it is estimated that over twenty-three million people died. World War Two, a generation later, would claim the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people. Of those who survived, not all came home whole. None would return unchanged. Many lost limbs, sight, health and hearing. Many minds were overturned by horror.

“We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.”

Private Abe Bevistein, aged 16, to his mother, just before he was executed by firing squad for deserting his post in WWI. He had been on the front line for a month when a grenade exploded next to him and he went to the rear to seek help. A medical officer said that he was fit to return to fighting, but he wandered off. Bevistein was one of 306 executed in this way, many of whom would today have been recognised as suffering from PTSD. Over eighty thousand were diagnosed with shell shock.

To speak in millions almost dehumanises the scale of the loss and grief. It is difficult to see individuals in such vast figures. To think in terms of the entire population of most countries still leaves it too impersonal. You have to look closer to home.

There are around sixteen thousand villages in England alone and only forty-one of them are ‘Thankful Villages’ who saw all their children return from the Great War. My village was not one of them. I live in a small, English village of around six hundred households. It is a rural village, surrounded by farm land, as peaceful a place as you could find. Many of the families who live here have done so for generations and many of those family names are inscribed on the village war memorial and in the Roll of Honour.

We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”

Victor Silvester, later known as a bandleader and musician, lied about his age to join up in 1914. He said he was of age, but was only fourteen.  He was sent to Arras and, while he was there, was ordered to take part in five executions by firing squad. These executions haunted him for the rest of his life.

Although I come from a military family, I find no sense in war, in sending human beings to maim and slaughter each other in a vain attempt to fight out political and ideological differences that will only be resolved at the negotiating table. But that takes nothing away from my respect for those who serve their country when called. Individual acts of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry are not lessened by my opinion of war-mongers.  The lives of the men, women, children and animals who gave their lives, had them taken from them, or who waited, worked and grieved, deserve to be remembered. Every single one of them, regardless of which country called them to service.

In my search to humanise the unthinkable numbers of war, I looked up the names of those who died from my own birthplace. My roots are not here in the village, I am a city girl by birth, though where I was born, now a suburb, was once a village too. Like all villages and communities here, it has its own war memorial and today it bears the names of the seven hundred and forty-six local people who have fallen in conflicts from 1900 to 2011.

Even those numbers were too big, so I visited the war memorial in the village where I live to pay my respects and walked to the church to read the Roll of Honour. I know there is at least one stained glass window dedicated to a young man who died in the Great War, and the St George above the door was placed there by the brother of another lost soldier. Although the church is closed for repair, I found the village Roll of Honour online and read each name.

From this one small village, a hundred and seventy-nine men went to serve in the Great War. In a village of a mere few hundred households, that must have made a huge impact. Forty-six men were killed. Another fifty-nine were unable to return to work after the war. Many of the men who returned would see their own sons go to war just a few years later.

The youngest to die were teenagers. Thomas Biswell, for example, was only eighteen. He lived in the Rothschilds Cottages, just a few doors away from my home. His father was a gardener. Thomas was killed in action in 1917 and his name is carved on the Menin Gate in Belgium. Leonard Evans was just eighteen too. His parents, Gertrude and David, lived in the High Street. His father was a mechanical engineer. Leonard was killed in France in 1918.

William and Sophia Fowler lost at least two of their sons as well as two other members of the family. Their boys had grown up just around the corner, a few paces from my home. The eldest of the men who served were in their forties. Another fifteen died in WWII.

I will remember them, from the oldest to the youngest, in the hope that one day, the human race may mature enough to find another way.

“We did hear that they were fetching all back from France under 19. For goodness sake Horace tell them how old you are, I am sure they will send you back if they know you are only 16. You have seen quite enough now just chuck it up and try to get back. You won’t fare no worse for it. If you don’t do it now you will come back in bits and we want the whole of you.”

Extract from a letter from Florrie to her brother, Horace Iles. Horace was a big lad, and it is thought he had been given a white feather for cowardice in the street by someone who thought him old enough to fight. He  lied about his age and joined the Leeds Pals, a battalion formed of workmates and neighbours as part of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was just fourteen. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, after two years’ active service. The battle claimed the lives of 750 of the 900 Leeds Pals who were there. Horace never read Florrie’s letter. It was returned to her unopened, marked, ‘killed in action’.

The Feathered Seer – The bitter drop

‘If you have not lived through something it is not true’

Kabir

The fourth ritual took us to a place of fear. Within the local landscape there is a high place that had, for a long time, remained hidden from notice, even though we had passed it many times over the years. It was never hidden from sight… there are no trees to give seasonal camouflage, no houses or obstructions…it was only, somehow, hidden from awareness. Even though we must have seen it, the mound had never impinged upon consciousness. And it is really too big, too imposing, to miss.

It was inevitable that, once noticed, we would visit the site. The story that was born of that first encounter has been told elsewhere. The encounter itself was unlike any other, beginning an unease that grew with each successive visit and leaving me an emotional wreck. The tale that the hills whispered would furnish the inspiration for the fourth ritual.

Prior to that, however, Morgana was to speak to the group of soul-lineage and the work of the psychopomp. It was one of the many striking synchronicities of the weekend. We had issued the invitation but had no idea what subject she would choose, what she would say or how she would present it. The subject could not have fitted more perfectly had it been pre-planned and scripted… and the symbols beside her as we walked in, black  and white, would exactly mirror what we had planned for another unscripted sequence in the very next ritual and about which only two of us knew. In such seemingly impossible ‘coincidences’ there is a reassurance that we are doing something right.

Fear was addressed on many levels throughout the weekend, from the fragilities of the ego that affect our day-to-day lives and the way we perceive the world, through to the deeper, often unspoken fears that hide in the shadows. Morgana spoke of death and dying and, for many those are the ultimate fears.

To those for whom death itself holds no fear, the manner of dying is one of some concern. We seldom have a choice in the manner of our passing and for most, if not all of us, there is the conscious hope of a gentle ending for ourselves and those we love. Death itself may be feared because we do not know what lies beyond… it is unknown territory and even our certainties cannot be proven before we pass beyond that veil. Death may also be feared because we cannot imagine a place or state of being when we are not. The ego is designed for life; it clings to its familiar state of being and, for existence to continue without its presence in some form or another, is an unencompassable idea to many.

The initiatory theme of the ritual took us to a place of fear… and moved beyond it. The word ‘initiate’ means ‘to begin’  or to ‘set in motion’ and, as there can be no beginning without the ending of a previous state, the symbolism of death and birth into a new state of being, of the fear and its facing, is an apt analogy. In the Tarot, the Death card symbolises not only physical death, but also endings and change… and a change is a new beginning.

Our society has, in many ways, become inured to death. It’s horrors are so often in our homes through the news and media, both in reality and as ‘entertainment’, that we no longer recoil from many of the images with which we are confronted. Yet both the fear and the mystery of death remain.

Before the workshop, I spoke with someone about the value of life and, in particular, about the role of its limits. Would we achieve anything much if we were immortal, beyond the ability to perfect the art of procrastination? With unlimited time, would we seek a cure for cancer or a path to peace? Our limitations may give our lives meaning. By being aware of and accepting our mortality, we create a virtual time machine for ourselves. We are all aware of how time itself seems to slow or speed up depending on our levels of boredom or engagement with the moment. By acknowledging the finite nature of our lives, time takes on a new level of meaning and we live each moment with greater intensity. Kahlil Gibran said, “It is life in quest of life in bodies that fear the grave.” The sadness is that our very fear of death is caused by our consciousness of life and, in turning away from its inevitability, perhaps we are also failing to embrace life as fully as we could.

Prediction

supermoon-012

We had the supermoon a few days ago. On the night when it was forecast that we would see the phenomenon at its best, the moon was hidden by a thick pall of cloud which, though beautiful to watch as the moonlight lit it from within, did not exactly give ideal conditions. Luckily, though, the previous night had been beautifully clear and I had watched a golden glow surround the moon in her rising and seen her unveil silver beauty low in the sky.

It had been the same with the meteor showers. When they were supposed to be at their best, the cloud was impenetrable.Yet I had seen shooting stars cross the sky as lines of white fire in the nights before and after…and one glorious meteor that was as bright as a firework flash across the blackness.

The predictions had been wrong. While the moon and shooting stars were evidently doing their thing above the clouds, the best nights to see them were not the nights foretold. Or at least, not here and not for me.

supermoon-016

Scientific predictions are like that though…uncertain. They can only ever take into account known factors. Not the random stuff the universe has a habit of throwing into the mix. They may build into their calculations a random element of uncertainty in an effort to offset the unpredictability of reality, but even so, you can only be guided by them, never rely upon them.

During the course of one bit of randomness, I was talking to my son about the death counters that are available online. They are supposed to offer a countdown facility to the predicted date of your death. Most come with a disclaimer that, should they get it wrong, they accept no responsibility. Either way.  Most simply allocate a fixed lifespan, subtract the days you have already lived and count down to that date. Others at least try to add in those factors known to lengthen or shorten the average lifespan…though there is no guarantee there either…and calculate your date of death accordingly.

One that I looked at had, at least, the benefit of being amusing. When a date had been entered in the wrong format, the programme had simply replied, ‘you are already dead. Have a nice day.’ They are not designed to be taken seriously. Or are they?

supermoon-018

If you look at one of these lifetimers, you can see the seconds ticking away. If you looked long enough, you would note that you had just wasted a minute. Perhaps two. Minutes that have been and will never be again, subtracted from the total ticking away on the timer. Were you also to look at one of the lists of statistics that detail the time we spend sleeping, working, doing housework, cooking and all the other necessities of life and subtract those from the total too, you would probably find the whole process both depressing and even a little morbid.

On the other hand, you might find it motivates you to enjoy, rather than lose, that indefinable span of time that is your life. To be aware of it and treasure its gifts, rather than allowing it to slip away, drowned in mediocrity.

Had I waited to look at the sky until the time was ‘right’, I would have missed the shooting stars. Had I closed the curtains to the night that was not that of the supermoon, I would have missed the beauty of its being almost there. Had I chosen to see the clouds, rather than the light within them, I would have missed the shafts of moonlight that lit the earth and cast shadows across the wet grass.Waiting till the time is ‘right’ for anything may mean missing the best moment…. and those moments are fleeting, ephemeral and fragile. Easily missed unless we are poised and ready to be with them.

It is not a case of settling for some nebulous idea of second-best or might-have-been, but about accepting the gifts that any moment can bring, making the most of them in full awareness and knowing that right here, right now, for you, this is the best.

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Stars

Image NASA

The cult of celebrity seems to have run mad over the past few years. Anyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame and if they can be sufficiently outrageous, outraged or enraging, may find themselves with a career in the limelight. At least for a little while. Some, however, have a real and enduring talent… and amongst those who touch the hearts and minds through music and the arts, some will find a lasting stardom.

Some notable stars died this week; the inimitable David Bowie, Alan Rickman, better known to a generation as Severus Snape and Dan Haggerty of Grizzly Adams fame. The world paid homage in recognition of the gifts they had brought to stage and screen and many have mourned their passing.

It is a strange relationship we have with those whose talents bring them fame. Sometimes, we almost think we know them, even though their personae change with every role… and none knew how to reinvent themselves better than Bowie. We do not know them, we see only those facets of the public and private faces they choose to show and the occasional and often misconstrued intrusions of the paparazzi. Like Severus Snape, they assume a public persona and live the visible part of their life to its rules, whilst beneath the mask they are as human as the rest of us, just as complex and contradictory, with the same human hopes and needs.

Yet for those of us who grew up watching their rise to stardom, the passing of such stars is often said to mark the end of an era… perhaps because it also marks the ticking clock of our own lives and realising our own mortality in theirs… the era we see ending includes our own youth.

Such public mourning, however, is not the same as the private grief felt by their friends and families… the people who knew and loved them, not as stars, but as friend, lover, child or parent. That is a grief we will all know and understand at some point in our lives… and every single time, it is different, raw and rending, even when it comes, as it sometimes does, with a gentle gratitude for an ending to pain.

Not all deaths are publicly mourned. There is little to see when an old man buries his wife and best friend of fifty years, or a daughter weeps in the silence of the night for her mother, or a child. Every day, across the world, this same scene is enacted by families over a hundred and fifty thousand times… and every day, twice that many babies are born. Of those, a mere handful will ever make a visible mark in the world, even fewer will find fame knocking at their door.

Most of us live and die in obscurity from the global perspective but to those close to us, our births, lives and deaths will always elicit deep emotions. To those with whom our lives entwine, we are more important than stardom; our talent for living and gift of love more valuable than fame. It is the small things of everyday life, the good and the bad, that will leave their footsteps in the sands of time. Not one of us, no matter how long or short our life, will fail to leave our mark in the world, written in the hearts and minds of those whose lives we touched in some way, great or small. History may be written about great events… but it is made by every one of us, every day.

We are links in an endless chain. Genetic research has, over the past few years, shown how closely related we all are, with family trees entwining their various branches throughout our history. Remove any link and the world as we know it could not be quite the same. Erase but one life from the course of history… your life or mine… and the future cannot be what it will be. Even those who have no children will affect future generations through the minutiae of their lives and interactions with others… perhaps bringing two people together. Maybe one of your descendants will finally cure cancer or craft the greatest story ever to be told. Perhaps your bloodline will reach the stars… Who knows? In that we are all equal…and all of equal importance to the world.

Even more than that, though, we are even closer than a genetic link. We are made of the same stuff as the stars… the same basic components that create every known thing in the universe; family in more than name. So it is right to take a moment to mourn the passing of those whose lives have touched our own in any way, great or small, near or far.

Look in his eyes and see your reflection
Look to the stars and see his eyes

David Bowie – Shadow Man

“…for as long as love shall last…”- Life and death in the beer garden

Avebury SE weekend 519

Our group had left Silbury Hill in need of refreshment before our next visit of the Mountains of the Sun weekend, and where better than the Red Lion in Avebury to seek it? The pub sits in the middle of the ancient stone circle…the sun had made a watery appearance as we sat down outside the pub. The benches were almost full. Nothing unusual there on a summer Saturday the week before Solstice, but it is not every day that the place is full with a party celebrating a handfasting.

There were flowers, children with garlands and smiling faces. The bride wore a gown of white crochet-work and one of the flower girls, with an impish smile and the face of a small angel, brought us a deep red Sweet William. It was a moment of transition from one life to another for the young couple, in a place where it seems very likely such transitions were celebrated long, long ago.

And an ambulance arrived. Not for some drunken reveller, but for a little old lady with frail, birdlike hands that fluttered her distress as the bride leaned down to reassure her.

Around us the children still ran laughing. A couple argued quietly, most seemed oblivious to the drama being played out but feet away from them… or if not oblivious, then they discretely turned their attention away; perhaps the kindest thing they could have done for the old lady.

Here, it seemed, all life was being played out around the benches of the pub. Not only the story of all our lives, but also the story of the landscape in which we found ourselves, as if we were being given a glimpse into a greater mystery.

We, of course, had just come from another place of transition, from life to death, at West Kennet long barrow. We had talked of how naturally the cycle of life must have been viewed by our ancestors. The comparison had been drawn between the pregnant belly of Silbury and the womblike darkness of the barrow. We had spoken of the spiral path that winds up Silbury Hill, like the ones at Merlin’s Mount and Glastonbury Tor… and surely they too must represent a reflection of the cyclic nature of birth, death and rebirth into another state.

We had spoken of the fear of death and its causes… the fear of the unknown that is carried by those who have no firm belief… the fear of divine retribution, Hell and Purgatory for many who do… and the fear of dissolution, perhaps the widest fear of all. The idea of ‘not being’ is one we generally find impossible to contemplate; our ego fights back, desiring survival. Yet if there is nothing after death… no consciousness, no spark of self… we will not know it, because we will not be. If there is something… then we cannot avoid it and there is little to be gained by meeting it with fear. And if the ego is dissolved, becoming part of Something Bigger… then, is that not a beautiful concept, and if it is so, our natural state?

To our ancestors it seems that death and birth were a more natural pairing than they are seen today when death is, as far as possible, kept quietly sanitised and joyless. We grieve, and I think we have always done so, for the loss we feel, and because we love and will miss those who have passed that portal and gone beyond our touch and the meeting of eyes. Love is at the root of life, the force behind birth and the cause of our grieving. Yet perhaps we need only look to the cycle of life for reassurance. Is anything ever truly lost, even love, or does it simply transform into a different state; its component parts rearranged, reordered… yet remaining themselves?

The vows at a lifetime handfasting are traditionally ‘for eternity’ or ‘for as long as love shall last’. For the group seated around that pub table, the unfolding events were a pertinent illustration. We were there to share a weekend of exploration, both in the green land and the inner landscape. Our goal together is to seek a transition as complete as any other… a death to the self that is rooted in the ego and a birth into a new awareness where the world takes on a different hue. Yet here too there is fear of ‘what next’… the same questions of ‘who will I be if I am not I?’ and the ego clings to life as stubbornly as we do. More so, perhaps, when we walk towards it willingly. Maybe this too is a natural transition and one which, one day, we must all meet and perhaps all we need to do is be ready to step on that spiral path and see where it leads.