Together, Poles Apart

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As a little girl, I loved the tale of Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson. There was something wholly magical about the battle between the Summer King and the Winter King facing each other in within a circle of stones to wrest the season from each other. That story was set at Beltane, but the ‘battle’ between summer and winter is never more obvious than at midwinter. The period around the winter solstice is the dark time of the year. The sun appears to stand still for a few days, hovering on the horizon. The nights begin early and end late. The days are short and cold. As the winter weather closes in, grey and forlorn, for a little while it seems that there is only darkness.

Yet it is at this very moment, when the winter has its strongest hold, that the light triumphs in the age-old contest as the nadir of winter passes and the sun begins to renew its ascendance.  No matter what the calendar says or how dark the day, the renewal of the light has begun its journey towards spring and many traditions honour this moment in time, each in their own way. It is for this reason that so many of the Lightbearers have been celebrated in the dark of the year throughout our history. It is in the midst of darkness that the birth of hope is both most needed and renewed.

It is odd, for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, to think that while we are celebrating all the holidays and holy days associated with the winter solstice, those who live in the southern hemisphere are celebrating in the warmth and sunshine of midsummer. The original inhabitants of every corner of the world would have had their own celebrations, born of the turning wheel of the year. Then, when the Old World colonised the New, the colonists took their traditions, beliefs and festivals with them too. Now, at opposite poles of the world, we share, for a moment, common celebrations of Light.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Perhaps that is something we can carry forward, beyond the celebrations, recognising our kinship instead of fearing our differences. Celebrating the fact that we can be poles apart in our beliefs and yet sharing a common desire for peace. This year has been a dark one for many, both at personal and international levels. There has been a sense of unease and foreboding, a longing for community and the fear of encroaching darkness has overshadowed many hearts.

As the seasons turn once more at the solstice, whether we live in the northern hemisphere or the southern, we can use this point of change to move forward into a brighter world. In every heart, there is a spark of Light and each one of us can be a Lightbearer to the renewal of the coming year.

A dismal dawn

It was a miserable Monday morning. Frozen fog clung to every branch and blade of grass, the temperature was well below zero and I had to be out early with the car.

The garage is just two miles from my home in normal circumstances, but the construction work for the new high speed railway line has made it into a five mile hike. The garage will normally run me home when I drop the car in to them for its MOT, but they are short staffed. The one bus of  the morning had just gone by the time I have negotiated the road closures and diversions and, to make matters worse, I could not make myself understood over the phone to the taxi company.

Shouting might have enabled them to hear me… but the pitiful croak that was all my voice could muster was not going to be able to maintain that volume for more than a few words. And then they hung up anyway.

I was cold, damp and shivering… I needed to get home and into the warm. I called my son, well used to the vagaries of my squeaky voice, and asked him to order me a taxi. He called back a few minutes later to tell me the two mile trip would cost me fifteen pounds… oh, the joys of living in a village… it couldn’t get much worse…

“Can I give you a lift?” said a voice out of nowhere. A runner of a similar age to myself was breathing great clouds of steam into the air. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Where are you going?” I told her, and loved the order in which she had asked the questions. She nodded at the oxygen tank on my back. “Are you in treatment?” I told her it was lung cancer… the one reason I could not just walk home. “My car is at the other end of the village, “ she said, weighing up the hill I would have to climb to accompany her, “wait here and I’ll be right back.”

How kind, I thought as I waited, little realising that she was not just parked at the other end of the village, she had actually run to get her car out of the garage, especially to take me home.

As we drove, she quizzed me about the prognosis and treatment and told me all about her friend who had also been diagnosed with incurable cancer, but who, with treatment similar to mine, has been healthy for years. It did not matter that every case is different, that the treatment and our response to it varies, what mattered was her kindness as she spoke with a certain amount of knowledge, reassuring without promising, adding a little hope to an otherwise dismal day.

Although the sun has not pierced the fog today, although the chill has lingered and has refused to be chased away, a little touch of kindness brought light and warmth to the morning. It takes very little sometimes to turn the day around, no matter how dull or how dismally it begins.

Fragments of Light

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I was talking with my son about the way life works out. The daily round of events and occurrences great and small that seem to be scattered, like pieces of broken glass, across the table of time. Some events hit your life with all the destructive power of a truck at full speed. Caught in the emotions of the moment it is hard to see beyond the pain, the fear, or the grief. Some are joyous rays of light casting bright pools of colour in the shadows. Most are the simple small-doings of everyday.

Taken individually, like pieces of a puzzle, they can be difficult to interpret… a patch of featureless blue or indistinct green may be hard to place within the image… especially if you don’t know what the picture is to begin with. Yet with a little patience, the pieces can begin to fit together. A detail here, a match there, and you begin to see the sense in the colours, to get an inkling of what the picture may be.

I am reminded of this when I am wandering around the old churches with their beautiful stained glass. Look too closely and they are just fragments of colour, odd shapes and sizes with little meaning. Stand back a little and the picture becomes clear. You can see how the seemingly random shards have been pieced together by a master hand to produce a glowing jewel of an image.

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Some windows are simple; easy to read, as the images are those we readily recognise from life. A face, a form, a creature or landscape. Others are abstract and require closer attention and more thought before the design becomes clear.

In some places, I see where fragments of glass have been salvaged from the destruction of history. There is no knowing what the original image may have been, yet the shards have been lovingly collected and fashioned into something new… different from the original design, but having a beauty all of its own when the light shines through.

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All the fragments have their place. We may not always see the bigger picture to know where they are supposed to fit, especially when we are concentrating too closely on the details. They may seem as though they will never make sense, or even as if they do not fit our design at all. Sometimes it seems things need to be broken apart so, as a friend put it, the light can shine through. Even the most glorious window, after all, is colourless in the dark. It is only with the light that the beauty becomes visible. The fragments of glass may make the picture, but only the light behind it gives it life.

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Our own lives are so much like these fragmentary shards, a jumble of bright and dark as we immerse ourselves in them, dwelling on the details and getting so close we have no hope of seeing what the picture holds. If we stand back a little we may get a better idea, seeing the traced design running through our days.

When you are lost in the events it is hard to make sense of them, but looking back you can sometimes see how all the pieces, light and dark, have their place and time, taking on a rhythm and a purpose, building up the picture that is our own becoming.

Who wants to live forever?

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Morning lights the east with liquid flame as the earth and I shrink into ourselves, frozen and pensive. Even so, with such beauty as this you almost wish you could live forever so the memory of it would never fade. The dog dismisses my philosophical mood and with her usual abandon, races across the field with every evidence of selective deafness. Ignoring both blandishment and command with her lopsided grin, she chases her breath in circles and greets the birds. Why, after all, would she want to come back to a nice, warm house and breakfast when there are moments like this to be had?

The sky changes, moment by moment, fierce flame and pastel softness vying for attention. It is incredibly boring for her to sit inside when there is a whole world out there to explore. Ani would far rather chase the morning than curl up by the fire. I, on the other hand, would happily go for the curling up today. It is cold and fingers struggle with the camera. Hibernation feels like a good option this morning.

Yet I can’t help thinking how much of life is spent in slumber already. Not just the necessary and healing luxury of sleep, where the realms of possibility unfurl over a landscape of dream; but the hours spent half awake, going through the motions of survival in our busy world, in submission to the systems that regulate our movement through the labyrinth of blind alleys and perceived opportunities that litter our days.

Even our bodies adjust their rhythm to the clockwork dance of time; hours devoured by hands that grasp each second as they turn in never-ending circles; seeking to define that illusive ‘now’ in which we are supposed to be and which is already the past before we are aware of its passing.

The flaming dawn ignites the horizon in a momentary blaze of splendour never to be repeated. For me, it is the immediacy of a ‘now’ that can never come again. Yet the sunrise I see is illuminated by light born far away and in the darkness of our night. The luminous glow that unfolds came into being over eight minutes ago at the centre of the solar system before I even left home. It’s now is my past. My now is my past too, over before it has been perceived… its separation from the present marked by the milliseconds required for neural transmission.

My cold-numbed mind is aware of a concept beyond words as I finally catch the laughing dog and head home in search of coffee. I am moving in what I see as a linear fashion through what I think of as time, yet it is such an elastic concept in our lives. I think about our perception of time and how it slows and speeds us through our days. How it flies in laughter or drags its heels through boredom and loneliness. The more new information the brain has to process, the slower time appears to pass for us… the more familiar the input we receive, the faster it seems to slip away.

The long, hot summers of childhood were filled with wonder, the shortening years of age pass in swift familiarity. Minds constantly learning with childlike abandon stay more alert than those content with the known… I dredge up the science I have read and conversations shared on those subjects and it seems that time itself, at least on a subjective level, is a perception; an elastic frame within which we order the chaos of experience.

Lurking around the freeze-dried edges of a warped imagination is the vague idea that here lies the key to immortality… the fabled elixir of eternal youth. If our days were filled with wonder and new learning, if our minds and bodies were alert to every scrap of information and attentive to experience, how slowly would our lives appear to run? Could we ‘stop time’ through our perceptions so that even a short life would feel like a long one? And is that eyes-wide-open awareness the secret of those of our elders who seem graced with the glow of inner joy that takes little account of physical age or bodily health?

I wouldn’t want immortality … wouldn’t even want eternal youth in the normal sense, but I would rather like to grow old with the wondering eyes of a child; with relish, not regret for the life I have been privileged to be a part of; something not mine but entrusted to me to do with the best I could. That kind of temporary immortality of perception I think I could handle.

Fire from heaven

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There was supposed to be a meteor shower. The moon would not be bright enough to drown the display of cascading stars with its light and the skies over the village are but gently lit. The light pollution here is perhaps as minimal as you will find close to the homes of a densely populated land.

It seems odd speaking of light of any kind as a pollutant. This, however, is not a natural phenomenon, but the fabricated, sulphurous pall that hangs over our habitations. It is a paltry imitation of the light of the heavens that, by a strange irony, prevents us seeing the sky. The delicacy of the stars is drowned by the glow of the city. The greater the volume of our invention, the less we see the source of our inspiration.

I stand at the back door, staring into the night, pondering. The dog patrols the garden, checking for the intrusion of stray cats and nocturnal mammals. Her focus is on the ground, protecting the perimeter she has designated as her own. Yesterday a fat fox ran across my path; the woods and fields around the house are teeming with wildlife. Beyond the fence shadows flit through the darkness… yet Ani ignores them. Her attention is fixed on that which she calls her own.

The sky is overcast; the thick blanket of cloud hides any trace of night, reflecting back only the projected and sickly orange of the earthly radiance. There will be no shooting star tonight. Beyond the clouds I know the light shines with its own purity, unaffected by our risible imitation. Streaks of light will traverse the heavens whether I see them or not. The gold of the sun will robe the moon in silver with that nightly alchemy we forget. The moon sheds no light, it is a celestial mirror, merely reflecting and limited by its own nature.

I see the old adage of the Mysteries played out around me… ‘as above, so below’ and realise that I stand in a hall of magical mirrors. Each aspect of the scene around me reflects aspects of a wider life. The dog seeks only to guard her own, just as we cling to our familiar beliefs, secular or spiritual. She knows there is a world beyond the fence… walks within it daily… yet this tiny patch of earth is where she patrols ceaselessly, watching her borders and repelling intrusion. We too hold to the familiar, even when we know it is an incomplete reflection… even when we have seen that there is a greater reality beyond… and we too repel anything we believe may intrude upon the safe familiarity of the known.

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We have seen those we call the Lightbringers… those great Teachers who have walked the paths of history… and our recognition of their inner Light gave rise to emulation. Faith was illuminated by their presence… religious movements sprang from our quest for understanding of the wider life they sought to show us…yet would those Teachers now recognise their own teachings, clouded as they are by centuries of human politics? I wonder how much of what we are taught is now only the reflection of artificial light on the belly of an overcast sky… and what that fabricated glow might hide from vision.

The light, however, is real. Whether captured within the glass of an incandescent bulb, or making pictures on a screen… we are only fooling ourselves if we think we create it. We have bent it to our will and service, created the means to display it…but light itself is itself… pervading every aspect of our lives by its presence or apparent absence.

And yet… we would not have sought flame without the knowledge of light. Without seeing it cast its rays upon the earth and realising its central role in our existence. We would exist in perpetual darkness … or rather, we would not, for without the life-giving rays of the sun there would be no life on earth. It is hardly surprising that we have sought to harness this most precious of gifts. Whether by need or greed mankind has sought to steal fire from heaven and turn it to his own service, and in his use of the enslaved light has veiled his own vision of the stars.

There are, however, those Prometheans who seek another kind of fire, beyond the spectrum of visible light; an inner sun that eradicates the darkness of doubt with perfect flame. They see beyond the clouds, beyond the reflected pall of earthly light to the heavens beyond. They come from all faiths and none, seeking only to see that nameless, formless light within which they live, move and have their being. They seldom burn with blinding passion that sets them ablaze on the world stage, but shed a gentle, quite radiance as they move through the shadows of the world, their footsteps illuminating the lives of those they touch. They do not grasp or seek to harness the light, but to serve it … and thus, the flame they carry is not stolen, but a grace.

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In black and white

 

Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.

 

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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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Harlequin Solstice

Harlequin Solstice

St John Kin

A picture in the fading sun

A race of fingers, digits

Of Solstice long earned

Short departed

How little

How sadly

You are understood

Your music the struggle

Of madness

Made harmony

Until this moment

When kings detach your strings

When single song

Descends

Towards the dark arms

But brighter eyes

Of St Stephen

©Stephen Tanham

Step by step…

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The path winds around the embankment of an ancient hillfort… a fairy fort, they are sometimes called, gateways to the Otherworld of myth and legend. There is silence save for the rustle of leaves, the ever present birdsong and the high keen of a red kite overhead. The sounds of the modern world do not intrude here.

The ground is soft beneath my feet, pliant and yielding with a thick carpet of last year’s leaves as I walk through the green tunnel that feels like a track left by some great serpent. The old ones knew of the great beasts; they saw the dragons that slept in the curve of the landscape and they carved their coils into their sacred hills. Hills such as this.

There is a liminal feeling to this place, a ring of earth high above the valley, guarding still the sacred space within, a gold topped tower now at its heart; a younger expression of an ancient power half glimpsed through symbols.

Through the green a portal of light… a window perhaps that shows a glimpse of that Otherworld, a door to another dimension? What will I see if I walk into that light… or will it blind the eyes, leaving other senses to find a way and a meaning? And what is that world… which is the reality, here or there… and can I pass through?

The landscape itself seems to mirror my mood with its path that moves in circles until I see the point at which I can break the endless round and move to a different level. A path that circles a sacred space within, older than years, but as old as being.

The walls of earth enclose, wrapping me in a silent isolation from a greater reality I cannot see with eyes, yet I know it is there, I feel its presence. The landscape beyond is veiled from view by trees that seem to be the ribcage of a serpent through whose belly I must pass, as in the myths of the old ones, day after day, perpetually swallowed and excreted until I can reach that place where the light comes in, that chink in the scales that leads to a place beyond.

And I can find it, that shaft of light. But only if I walk this path, and only from the dimness of the shadows of this place could I see the brightness of where I must be. If I walked within that light, could I see it? Would I recognise it? Could it lead me so clearly onward? A guiding beam must be brighter than the shadows it chases and the shade serves to make visible its path of light.

I walk once more around the wooded hillfort, marvelling at the beauty of this liminal place. A simple walk has become meditation, awe and prayer. Words fail as understanding opens. Words no longer carry meaning. To be here and now allows a glimpse across the threshold of worlds… my own and a greater, the worlds of legend and dream, of faith and aspiration… of Knowing and Being. A glimpse from shadow into the light and the reassurance that even in the deepest shade, because of that deepest shade, there is a bright path waiting to be found to take the traveller’s feet beyond the circled coils.