We were back at Avebury, after a longer absence than we would have chosen. Without the pandemic, there would have been recce trips and a workshop here already this year… and no sense of sadness as I drove past the lay-by where we would have parked to walk up to West Kennet. I would have like to have made the short climb to the ancient long barrow, a place that holds both welcome and memory, but there was no way even that little slope would have been within my capabilities.
We stopped instead beside the great prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill. Coming or going, we pay our respects to the ‘largest prehistoric, man-made mound in Europe’… thinking yet again how futile such words are to convey the sheer presence and majesty of this gravid earth.
If, as one legend avers, King Sil is buried within the mound upon his horse, then no trace of man nor beast has ever been found. But think of Nut, the sky goddess of ancient Egypt, who swallowed the sun every night and gave birth to it each dawn and perhaps ‘King Sil’ takes on a different guise.
In the Egyptian myths, the sun travels through the underworld at night, plagues and attacked by the great serpent, Apep. Not so very different, perhaps from the mound at Avebury, surrounded by the mirror-pool of waters that reflect the heavens and through which a swallowed king would have to pass.
Why is it that we can attribute such sophistication to the ancients of other cultures and yet deny it to our own? If we wrote down no tales, we remembered them… passing them from mouth to ear, heart to heart, throughout the millennia. Perhaps that is a more sacred way of passing on the innermost stories of creation than simply committing them to paper or papyrus. To hold something so close to your heart that you never let it go… or be befouled, damaged or broken. And yet, such a holding is only as strong as its holder… and all men return to dust in their day.
Leaving Silbury, we headed along the Avenue, parking the car so we could get out and wander amongst the stones for a little while. We greeted them as old friends… long missed, it seems, since our last visit. And yet, they were still so familiar that we knew their names and faces… could now pinpoint where, right across the country, the same shapes have been chosen for stones that still somehow manage to remain wholly unique to each site.
And yet, there is a similarity in the shape and faces of the stones… of that we now have no doubt at all. We have seen it from the Western Isles to Cornwall… and everywhere in between. Although it is now lost to us, there is a meaning and language in the shapes the Old Ones chose for their stones… and in the faces that they show to us.
We walked, naming the stones, greeting them, untiI had to turn back. It wasn’t far…and nowhere near as far as I would have liked… but it was good to be back amongst the stones at all. From here we could clearly see Falkner’s Circle, a ‘lost’ circle that we had sought for some years earlier and found, discretely hiding in a hedge. There was no hiding today and the stone was clearly visible, even from this distance, illuminated as if from within.
With the Red Lion subject to virus restrictions and the beautiful old Waggon and Horses at Beckhampton still closed by the pandemic, we were pretty much obliged to wander into the centre of the village and the main circle, in search of facilities and so I could catch my breath.
There was the familiar thrill as we ‘breached’ the energies around the circle… never quite the ‘psychic shock’ of that first time, but you feel it every time as you drive or walk into the presence of the great circle of stones. It is always like stepping into your place within an ancient and unending dance to which your soul knows the music… and as if you have never left your place at all… as if the time spent away from the dancing life within the stones is of little relevance. It is a strange place… but it heals the crazed stress-cracks in the soul like few others. Just to be there was enough.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” That has to be one of the most popular quotes from the work of the thirteenth-century Persian poet, Rumi. You see it all over the internet these days and yet, I wonder how often we stop to think about what it might mean. Much may be lost in translation of words that seem both familiar and easily understandable, knowing so little of the mindset, beliefs and culture of the writer, but even taken at face value, such words conjure an image to which we can all relate.
Every life holds its own heartache. We cannot avoid them, no matter how we try. We cannot hide from them, though we can, and often do, try. Yet still they find us. And every heartache, great or small, leaves a wound that remains tender, often prone to infection from further hurts, just as any wound of the flesh. Untended they can fester and even the smallest can bring terrible pain and cause greater damage than the wound itself warranted.
Yet, if we cut ourselves, we do not run from the pain… we deal with the cut first, cleaning it, maybe having it stitched by someone more qualified than we, if it is bad, then we keep it clean and let that cleanliness and the fresh air do their work. There may be a scar, there may not. If there is, most of the time it fades into insignificance and is forgotten.
We do not treat the heart as kindly, though, do we? We often worry at the hurt like dogs with a sore foot, we scratch it and press it to feel how much it pains us, or bite it as we illogically do with a tooth that needs attention. It is almost as if we are afraid that the pain will stop.
I have wondered about that. It is not as if we enjoy the hurting. But maybe we feel a need to cling to it, to keep it alive somehow. Perhaps we have lost someone or something and in allowing the pain to heal we feel as if we are betraying that loss? Maybe the pain is due to fear and in letting go of the fear we fear the unknown territory of being unafraid? The familiar is always more comfortable than the unknown… at least in our own minds.
The danger is that we allow the hurts to define who we become. We sink beneath the murky waters of pain and cease to see clearly, allowing events and our reactions to them to shape who we are and how we see the world. We learn to see ourselves through a veil of hurt and in turn this is the image we expect others to see.
Yet we are not our hurts. The pain can teach, or it can, like a flame, burn away the impurities and leave behind something cleaner and able to move freely. I have a feeling that is its purpose, to allow us to burn for a little while, cleansing the grief and fear, before emerging like a phoenix renewed.
The scars remain as reminders. Nothing is lost or forgotten, but it can be allowed to take its place in the past and be a solid foundation for the future. Perhaps if we are able to allow ourselves to heal, seeing the wounds, as Rumi says, as the places where the Light enters, the pain would find its proper place in our lives as a teacher, not loved, perhaps, but respected and acknowledged for the value of its experience and the healing it can bring.
It is rare, on one of our workshop weekends, to get a moment to yourself outside of your room. There is so much to do and any free time is generally spent catching up with people you too seldom see. But, given that I was in no fit state to join the others for their cliff-top walk, I found myself in the car-park above Staithes on my own.
Staithes is a pretty village, once a major fishing port with every available inch of land holding fast to a cottage. The narrow streets and gay colours of the houses give it a welcoming feel… but I had completely forgotten about the hill that leads down to the bay. And this is not a hill anyone should be able to forget. Down is relatively easy… although the bits of me that were aching disagreed… but getting back up would be hard work. Still, I had a while to wait and, with the last light of the day tinting the sky, I wrapped my cloak around me, thankful of its warmth, and sat down to watch the sea.
There is a lot of history in Staithes, and I should probably mention that Captain James Cook had lived and worked here as a boy before the sea caught him and him on the waves, but to be honest, the only thing I could think of was that the sea had me too. I have never wanted to become a sailor, but the sea has always pulled at my heartstrings. Perhaps it has something to do with being as islander… something we tend to forget when we live inland. The sea is in our blood and, although many of us see it but rarely, it is never really very far away. I have lived inland all my life, but sometimes closer to the sea than I am now. For years, I did not see it at all, and even now, when I get to the coast a little more often, there is a childlike excitement and a sense of coming home.
The waves beyond the little harbour crashed and foamed, within the embrace of the walls, the sea was mill-pond calm…at least on the surface… as the sun went down. I watched a family of children collecting shellfish along the waterline, a lone mallard duck looking out of place amongst the seagulls. And I watched as the tide turned, listening to the song of the waves and the beating of my own heart. There is healing in such moments of peace and communion, when there is nothing to do except be and the sea always works her magic.
I could have gone inside and waited in the pub, but I was perfectly happy where I was. By the time the others arrived… and not by the path I was expecting… the sea had receded and so had the pain. All I needed was a coffee and a little warmth to feel better than I had all day. Everyone was tired, and the pub was packed, so instead of an early dinner, we parted and made our way back to Whitby and our hotels. At least, that was the plan. The night, though, had an unexpected treat in store…
More from Helen Jones on our visit to a rather special site…
I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part seven of my account, parts one, two, three, four, five and six can be found here…
As we approached the Andle Stone its size, half hidden by the slope and vegetation, became more apparent, as did the fact that this was obviously a significant part of a larger landscape. Once again, there seemed to be a tradition of climbing attached to the stone, as someone had incised footholds as well as graffiti, and cup marks higher up indicated it had been in use for a very long time. However, it was a good four metres or so to the top so we decided to leave it, pushing through the shrubbery to the front of the stone, where an inscription lay hidden.
Helen continues her journey through the sacred sites of Derbyshire…
I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part six of my account, parts one, two, three, four and five can be found here…
As you pass between the gateposts leading onto Stanton Moor, there is a feeling of entering another world. Perhaps it’s the Cork Stone, a great stone guardian whose sphinx-like profile has monitored the path for millennia, or the old quarry marks, now overgrown. Or perhaps it’s the many cairns hidden amongst the heather, silent indicators that this is a land of the dead.
Humans have been using this place for thousands of years, which is why Stanton Moor is a place of national importance and, as such, is protected. Prominent signage advises visitors to leave no rubbish, make no marks and, something that became important as we journeyed further into the landscape, keep their dogs on a lead at all times.
There has been a sick fish in my son’s pond for months now. At one point, there were two of them, floating belly up, side by side, and sporting ugly ulcers. They were so ill that we had even been obliged to discuss the possibility of euthanasia, although that goes against all we have learned about the nature of hope over the past few years.
We even went as far as buying clove oil with which to anaesthetise the fish if their suffering seemed too much for them to bear….and the day we did so, they rallied. It seemed at the time as if, having accepted that responsibility, the need for action was removed.
We named the fish for their characteristics during their illness, to distinguish between them for the daily reports on their progress or lack of it. Once, grossly swollen and looking for all the world as if he would die of dropsy, a virtually incurable problem, we called Fat Fish. The other is now on his third name.
After a few weeks, Fat Fish made a truly remarkable recovery, against all odds and predictions. The other fish was not so lucky. At first, all he could do was flap feebly. Then we had a period where his recovery looked impossible… and the next day he would be swimming. We named him Trooper for his gallantry.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
Trooper hid himself under the plants and no longer swam. He was not eating and became translucent, thin and weak. Every day, I twitched his blanket of plants when I arrived at my son’s home…at first, expecting the worst, then as the days went by, hoping for his release and knowing that by all logic, he should already be dead.
We were back to the big question again… how long could we leave him in this state? We had tried every medication and intervention by now and nothing was working. It was heartbreaking to watch.
Nick, however, was convinced the little fish would rally again. “He’ll be fine,” he said, over and over again and with utter conviction, every time I broached the subject. “He can do it.”
I had to wonder if my son’s unrealistic belief in the fish were a reflection of his own impossible recovery, rather than a hope based in reality. Nevertheless, we continued to watch and wait…and I continued with my own unreasonable hopes, and every day I expected to be preparing a grave.
Then, one morning, Trooper was gone. He was no longer beneath the plants… my heart sank. He had given up the ghost and I would have to remove his body if I could find it in the depths of the pond. I looked everywhere…the water is clear and yet I could not see him. Until I caught sight of a fish with the distinctive black marks on his back that identified him as Trooper, swimming with the rest.
I held my breath, expecting the emaciated fish to float back under his plant. He didn’t. He sped around the pond, chasing his friends and doing laps. We had seen him rally briefly so many times, though, that I was not convinced. He hadn’t eaten for weeks, was so thin and pale you could almost see through him and his side had still not healed.
“Told you he’d recover,” said my son. I was still expecting a relapse, but a week later, and the little fish is still swimming. His back, unless he chooses to submerge, doesn’t quite make it underwater. He is a little lopsided… but his side has now healed. He’s eating… and he is out-swimming every fish in the pond in terms of speed and energy. My son renamed him Super Trooper.
I cannot help wondering how much my son’s adamant belief in the little fish helped his recovery. I had enough knowledge to realise that my own hopes that the fish would pull through were not at all realistic. My son, with less knowledge, simply had faith in him and refused to believe there could be any other outcome.
That is a magical thing. The little fish’s recovery, given how ill he was, seems a minor miracle. I have seen a good many troubled teenagers who just needed someone to have faith in them, trust them… believe they were worth something… and it changed their lives from a slippery slope to a steady climb. I held my son’s unconscious hand, willing him to health, despite the prognosis… surrounded by his friends and family who also believed he could shatter the predictions. And he did. Those who have believed in me when I could not do so drew me out of the shadows of my own life and into a place where I can believe in myself.
To believe, to trust… to have faith in someone… that is an expression of Love. It can move metaphorical mountains… it can change lives, and bring healing, both to the one who believes and the one in whom they have faith. I wonder how often we underestimate the power of such a simple act… and what we could achieve if we could bring our whole hearts to Love, hope and trust?
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.
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.
Jan, a Companion of the Silent Eye, joined us for the Saturday of the Ash and Seed weekend and here shares her own perspective on the day:
This post has taken a while to write, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps I needed to integrate all the insights gained over the course of the day. I attended one day of a Silent Eye pre-solstice weekend workshop on Anglesey, North Wales last Saturday (03/12/16). It was entitled ‘Of Ash and Seed’. Our explorations involved walking a sacred landscape known to be the last stronghold of the Druids; paying our respects along the way to seekers gone before us. The culmination of Saturday was a symbolic act to release stagnant and unhealthy energies preventing our movement into a new phase of being. That’s a simplistic take on the events of the day admittedly.
What of my feelings in this journey? The day began at 6.10 am on Saturday and was infused with a sense of excitement and hope. I felt like a pilgrim journeying to commune with their gods on the holy isle and to meet with others of their tribe. A little fanciful you may think. Many, many pilgrimages have been made, always resulting in a change of consciousness and life path. They’ve been necessary in order for my spiritual evolution. Stagnation was currently impeding growth and filling me with great frustration. What to do dear Reader? A solution had to be found. Here was an echo of, something terribly familiar. We appear to be experiencing a collective Dark Night of the Soul, a condition that is replete with fear, confusion and anger. It’s also occurring on a personal level. Therein lay my answer.
As for the location, please let me set the scene to start us off. The island is rich in prehistoric remains, the earliest evidence of human habitation dates from the Mesolithic (7000 BCE). The Isle of Anglesey (Welsh – Yns Môn), as elsewhere on the British Isles, was witness to the transition of the old Celtic world to one with new values and rulers. This occurred over a period of time, starting with the Roman occupation of Wales that lasted for over 300 years. Roman legions XIV and XX launched a ferocious attack on Mona Insula (Anglesey) in 60 CE. It was of strategic importance, a source of valuable agricultural land and mineral wealth. In addition, it was the last outpost of the Druids and hotbed of resistance to the occupation. These people were standing on the threshold of devastating changes, as we are in modern times. It was the ending of an age. Destruction was clearing the way for passage into a new era. This is the canvas against which I set my personal journey.