Six second memory

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“You’re in goldfish mode again, aren’t you?”

My brain-injured son looks smug. I raise my eyes to the heavens. He’s right, I have completely forgotten half the things he just asked me to do. He takes a great and unholy delight in what he calls my six-second memory, especially when he shouldn’t have one at all.

The goldfish is famed for the shortness of its memory… though you wouldn’t think so to see my son’s fish react to the sound of footsteps and the food jar. In fact new studies suggest they can recall things for up to five months. Perhaps what they do is discard the unnecessary to ‘make room’ for the needful. Which isn’t a bad thing to do.

I forget a lot of things. Not because of poor memory, but simply because they don’t capture my attention, having no emotional impact or intellectual appeal…because I have no affinity for them… or simply because I no longer need to remember what technology does better than I and even the memory gets lazy. Or perhaps it is simply freed for more important or more interesting things… things with which we engage and which capture our attention.

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My son and I often talk about the vagaries of memory.
“It wasn’t a lie, they were telling the truth as they remembered it.”
“But that doesn’t make it true.”
“It makes it their truth…”
“But not necessarily the truth.”

Memory is a fickle thing. We will not recall what we had for lunch on this day ten years ago… but we will remember that holiday, that special occasion, that wonderful day… Yet we can only remember things through the filters of our own emotions and understanding at the time. Even when logic, in later years, refuses to accept that there really was a monster in the wardrobe, the child in us recalls the memory and shudders. Or perhaps we believed in Narnia and still open the wardrobe with illogical hope.

Just a few years ago my work was office based as a transport manager. The telephones required you to input numbers, scores of them every day as you liaised with suppliers, customers, other transport companies and your own fleet of drivers. It was more energy and time efficient to know their numbers than to look them up every time, so remember them you did. It is not so long ago, but I haven’t been in contact with any of those people since that time. I couldn’t remember one of those numbers now… or for that matter any of the scores of personal numbers I once knew in the days before cell phones became part of our lives. But I could still tell you about the people I talked to, all about their spouses and children… which one played badminton, which had a rescue dog, whose son was doing so well at school… all the personal details that were shared over that faceless phone as we talked. Their phone numbers were essential for the job, but it was the people who touched the heart, sense of humour and mind, and it is they who remain long after the details have gone.

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“It’s like having your own walking Wikipedia…”

My son looks disgusted… my turn to look smug, having just imparted another bit of dredged-up information gleaned over the years. It really is incredible how much our memories hold. Most of the time we don’t even realise it is memory in action. We think of memories as encapsulated moments, events or sequences from the past, yet everything we know, from the simplest word, to the cake recipe… from the way to get from here to there, to the basics like how to flick the light switch… it is all memory. All learned behaviour.

And so are we. Memory can be abstract too, so we learn to react in certain ways to certain situations, we learn where there is joy or pleasure and can seek it out, or where there is possible pain so we can avoid it. Physically and emotionally. We learn when we can be ourselves and at ease and when to don the social masks behind which we hide, both from the prying eyes of the world and from ourselves. Our personalities begin building themselves from our memories right from the start and it is memory that carries us through our days and all our relationships with those around us. Which is why the degeneration of memory is such a tragedy.

Yet memory alone is not enough. The ancients knew it, and in the Norse mythology Odin is known as the raven-god, as the two birds, Huginn and Muninn, fly from him every day across the world, and bring him knowledge. “Huginn and Muninn fly each day over the spacious earth. I fear for Huginn, that he come not back, yet more anxious am I for Muninn,” says Odin in the Grímnismál. Huginn means thought; Muninn memory… or mind.

Yet what is it that they fly back to? What is it in us that has mind, thought, memory? We are not these things… all may seemingly be taken from us by age, accident or infirmity. Yet even then there is a something that remains, a something that is us. Something which is the raw material upon which thought and memory build a structure, a vehicle for who we truly are.

Perhaps the myth of Odin holds more than a clue, for he is the raven god because of his association with these birds. They serve him by bringing him what they have found, memory and mind, a knowledge which, when combined, may become understanding. When we take the elements of our experience, our thoughts and memories, our acquired responses and transmute them into something higher and deeper than observation or reaction, what is it in us that can do this? It is, I think, that echo of the divine that flames within us, the flame of Being that holds and is held by the vessel we think of as ourselves.

Goldfish or Raven? Perhaps we need to be both.

flirtycleo2Images Cleo from Disney’s Pinocchio

Deep waters

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The fish are watching me watching them. Every so often, one or another will come to the corner of the aquarium and look out into the world around my desk and we watch each other, eye to eye. It is a strange feeling, wondering who is the observer and who the observed at such moments… and can we truly draw that distinction?

It is only with the advent of modern technology that we have really had the privilege of looking beneath the waters and watching the piscine world. I remember being spellbound by Cousteau’s undersea adventures as a child, exploring waters I will never see. The rich diversity was breathtaking, but there was not the same intimacy as living with fish and watching them day by day.

Keeping fish is an old, old story. The Roman’s did it, so did the Chinese. Around 50 AD, the Romans first used glass on one wall of their marble tanks in order to keep sea barbel. The Chinese kept goldfish in porcelain bowls. Conditions for the fish, with insufficient oxygen and no water flow cannot have been good. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that fishkeeping began to catch on in Britain and the technology was still too poor to maintain healthy communities of fish.

By the middle of the twentieth century, we had aquarium heaters, filters and electric lighting. Keeping tropical fish became a viable proposition and our understanding of the necessary parameters for water quality, temperature and a diverse ecosystem has grown since then. We have learned how to mimic the natural environment to a point where most aquarium fish are now tank bred; wild-caught fish are frowned upon and many species now extinct in the wild through environmental changes are preserved only by dedicated hobbyists.

It is a bit of a touchy subject, because the original ‘specimens’ were all wild-caught. Even today, there are still those desperate to get hold of newly discovered species who will pay through the proverbial nose in order to acquire the latest novelty… often long before there is any real understanding of their needs… and the primary need of a wild fish, after all, is to be wild. Novelty is also responsible for the aberrations of the profit-seekers who will chemically dye fish to make these beautiful creatures ‘more attractive’.

Most fishkeepers, though…even the accidental ones like me… are simply fascinated by their beauty and behaviour. Their individual characters soon show themselves. They have a distinct hierarchy, they dance for their mates, they even play games… and for the first time in history we can see these creatures face to face with perfect clarity in an environment as close to nature as any confinement can ever be.

If all they, and generations of their ancestors, have ever known is life in a tank, then their environment will not feel like confinement…it will feel like home. As they look out of their glass boxes at us, comfortably confined with the glass and concrete of the modern home, I wonder if they think the same of us?

Caged butterlies

Berthe Morisot 1875

Berthe Morisot 1875

I love antique fans… there is something about them that has always fascinated me. I remember vividly standing in tears at Harewood House at an exhibition many years ago. I don’t quite know what it is… their delicacy and craftsmanship, the artistry in miniature, their ephemeral fragility… or perhaps it is the stories that they could tell. They were given as gifts, symbols of love and affection, hid shy smiles and coquettish glances, indeed there was a whole, discrete language that could be spoken in silence by the hand that held the fan.

I used to collect them. It was one of those things I had always promised myself when I could afford to do so. The delicate lace and gauze, painted satin and  feathers of the Belle Époque were my favourite, though the little brisé fan that belonged to my great-grandmother was the most precious. They went long ago, when times were tough, but  it was a privilege to be their custodian for a while.

Amongst my dreams one night I dreamed of a fan. I was being shown how it was to be restored. The whole ‘lesson’ was about perception, and it went on for what seemed like half the night.  In this particular passage though there was a broken fan. The gauze had split and frayed through mishandling, the sticks were  damaged and broken, the guards detached. Yet it had been a lovely thing of mother of pearl and spangled silk, painted with tiny creatures and nasturtiums… School colours and not unlike a fan I once loved.

James Tossot 1885

James Tissot 1885

The restorer showed me how to fix the guards… how to stiffen the leaf, backing it with  fine fabric to strengthen the damaged bits… how to mend the sticks and replace the rivet that held them together. I remembered how to tie the wrist ribbons. And when we had finished it looked beautiful, almost as good as new…

Except, it didn’t feel right, somehow, it was too heavy, unbalanced and the extra fabric meant it could no longer fold… certainly it could no longer be opened and closed with one graceful flick to make a conversational point. Although the body of the fan was repaired, it had lost something. It was no longer fit for the hands of coy damsels or elegant matrons. It had been patched and mended so skilfully to preserve its outward appearance that it was no longer fit for purpose. It had lost its soul.

Next I was shown how to back the fan, sewing each stick in place, supported and unfurled in all its beauty so it could be framed in glass to protect it for the future. No longer would it be handled or used, it would lay against no other cheek to say I love you  in that secret language… indeed… we had to wear white gloves so as not to contaminate it with our nasty, sweaty hands… the same that gave the beautiful patina to sticks of ivory and wood.

Alexandre Roslin 1768

Alexandre Roslin 1768

The sticks, sewn into place, could no longer flex and move, there was only stiffness where there should have been fluid movement. The butterfly was caged, pinned in a frame, a lifeless beauty, preserved for posterity in all its glory… but inanimate, soulless…. Its very nature changed by its preservation. Yet collectors of beauty would pay highly for the framed fan, seeing only the artistry, not the cage.

The waking mind sees further than the dream… or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the waking mind is able to unpick what the dreaming mind already knows and bring it into consciousness. I do not believe that there are regimented meanings to the content of dreams, although some of the images we encounter are so deeply rooted in human consciousness that their symbolism is readily apparent. Dreams are personal and it is up to us to be the key that unlocks the doorways into our subconscious that they offer.

I have mulled over this one, on and off, for a long time and there are so many layers of possible meaning that unveil themselves that, as with most dreams, there is no single, clear-cut answer. It is possible that all those layers of meaning are right… each on their own level. The mind is a fabulously creative thing.

Fans have always seemed like precious, if ephemeral things to me. Perhaps, given that I was already caring for an injured son, it was a lesson in the care and diligence it would need to ‘mend’ him… and a reminder that no matter how carefully we worked, the end result would be different, though perhaps even more valuable, than where we began.

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Maybe the dream was telling me that we have to let go of the past? That attempting to preserve what is beyond repair will only render something stiff and soulless, outwardly attractive, perhaps, but no longer useful. Most of us cling to outworn behaviours, habits become futile and even relationships that have long since failed.

The battle for social acceptability through conformity might be epitomised by the broken fan too. How many of us choose by default or are forced into the roles and boxes that society deems acceptable, when we yearn for a different life, only to find our spirits starved of colour and movement, sliding gradually into an old age of stiff regret?

Caged butterflies.

Or was it, like the rest of the dreams that night, simply another lesson in perception? That beyond the outer form, whether beautiful or tatterdemalion, all things have a purpose. To try to force someone into serving a purpose for which they were not destined, is to rob them of their chance to fly… and perhaps this applies especially to oneself. To deny the inner purpose of our being is to deny our Selves and leads to a lifeless life.

Sometimes, to escape the cage and find our true wings, we have to follow our dreams.

Game birds?

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They’ve been tormenting me for weeks. Every morning as I drive to work, the buzzards line up on fence and hedgerow along a three mile stretch of the A41. It is a stretch of road where there are few places to legally or safely stop and I know every one of them. The buzzards appear to do so too. “Buzzards as big as bears”, wrote Stuart after they had attended our journey to Glastonbury a few weeks ago… and they appear to be when they are looking at you as you drive past, frustrated by the traffic and unable to stop.

Every day they have been sitting where they knew I could stop and grab a photograph… except on the days when I had the camera beside me. On those days, they infallibly choose to park themselves at spots where stopping is impossible. The herons have been doing it too. So have the kites. Only the robins have been their usual obliging selves. Until yesterday.

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The buzzard flew in just as I was approaching the one place to stop. On any other morning, I would have been obliged to sail on past and sigh…but the schools are closed for half term and the roads were quiet enough for a bit of sneaky manoeuvring. The buzzard did not seem too pleased about having lost a round in our ongoing game. Usually, they win every time. I still missed the heron a mile down the road… Then, lo and behold, a couple of hours later, I got a red kite too!

The thing is, you don’t really get a sense of the size on a photo. These were snapped rapidly from relatively close quarters and they look as if they could be pigeon-sized…but they are huge. The buzzard looks bigger and bulkier… but although a full-grown adult will weigh about the same, the red kite is by far the bigger bird with a wingspan around as wide as I am tall.

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The other part of the game is that you will never see them if you are looking for them, even when you know their regular haunts. Camera or not, even if you only set out with the intention of keeping your eye open for buzzards, the world is a buzzard-free zone.

The kites are usually soaring overhead, at least down here in the south, but buzzards could be as rare as unicorns if you are scanning the sky and hedgerows for them. They only appear when they choose. Which makes every sighting a gift. It is always a reminder too that some things cannot be expected, only accepted gratefully when they fly into your life.

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Coming of age

"The Love of Souls" -- 1900, by Jean Delville
“The Love of Souls” — 1900, by Jean Delville

I have had my fair share of love letters in my time.  Possibly more than my fair share, not that I would complain. There is something timeless and special about the written word. The first, very first, was a scribbled note on the back of a photo from a young man named Neil. I still have it. He was away on a long holiday with his parents… we were children, no more than that. The first real love letter I ever received was way back too. His name was Malcolm. He was blonde and gorgeous, looking rather like a very young Michael York. Malcolm was a couple of years older than me, very intelligent and we had met and fallen head over heels the way young things do.

It was the first time I had met a boy who looked beyond the surface to the mind. Back then, a time of legs, gypsy blouses and hot pants, few looked beyond, shall we say, the salient points of anatomy. To be able to actually talk with a young man about literature, go to art galleries together, the theatre… it was, for me, a joyous awakening. I could allow myself to be me.

It was also, for a teenager, a hugely romantic affair as we were apart much of the time while he was away at boarding school. Hence the letter. We had spent the summer together, but when September came he was riven from my arms. Yes, I know, I’m sorry… it felt that melodramatic at the time. We were very young. Star crossed lovers….

It wasn’t as bad as it seemed. I lived in Leeds, a city with a brilliant transport network. His school was in the little village of Drax, near Selby… so half an hour into town, twenty minutes by train, ten minutes by bus… then two and a half miles on foot, generally in very high heels… and we could meet. It wasn’t allowed… which, looking back, made it far more exciting. I was smuggled into the stately house on more than one occasion by Malcolm and his friends. Or we met in the village and wandered the woods hand in hand. Terribly romantic.

That couldn’t happen every week and in between there were letters. Almost daily. I will never forget the first. It had come through the door as I left for school, I had been itching to read it, but there were other girls with me until break time and I wanted to curl up ‘with’ him alone. In a corner of the form room, when everyone had left for break I opened the envelope and began to read.

No-one had ever sent me Shakespeare before! Imagine trembling fingers and maidenly heart all aflutter! I can feel the echo of it now…. even now…after all these years.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…

It didn’t last, of course, in spite of a first ring offered, in true romantic fashion, on one knee. We grew up. But it had left me with many things learned from our time together, including a love of Shakespeare and huge tracts of his work to ponder that I can still quote by heart. Everything leaves its legacy with us and it is up to us to ensure that what remains are not scars but gifts. Malcolm allowed a young girl to see beyond her own unconfident and fragile exterior and begin to explore the possibilities of mind and of simply becoming herself. It was a wake-up call.

They come in many forms, these moments of realisation. Some are relatively minor and mundane, others hold a deeper meaning, eliciting a choice made with heart, mind and soul. Some we respond to, others we choose to ignore. We always have a choice. To be… or not to be perhaps.

Over coffee and with several thousand miles between us, a friend and I were discussing this a while ago. She has a rare gift for finding the words to encapsulate wisdom. We were speaking of those wake up calls that come from the most profound levels of being; hers came forty years ago and she has served the Light with every atom of her being ever since, wearing a radiant mantle of joy born from that service that, I think, none can fail to see.

When that call comes there is still a choice. We can choose to accept, and in doing so be ready to release everything we have thought we are, the things by which we attempt to define ourselves… or we can turn away, retaining the security of our self-image.

“Well,” she wrote, “it will be according to the will of the human spirit. Until that human will has made the choice to join in fullness with the Will, the Divine extends the blessing and the curse of freedom.”

That expresses for me such beauty, that we have the gift of choice, the freedom to choose. Though when that call comes to a heart ready to hear, there may seem no other choice but to follow where it leads, no cost to consider, no question but to answer wordlessly. It is a moment of surrender to Love and in that moment, Silence is the perfectest herald of joy.

The Marsh King’s Daughter: Blossom…

 

barbrook III (14)

Hi-ho the Carrion Crow, bow and bend to me…

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…There usually is.

Perhaps one reason for the tale’s obscurity these days is its perceived, overtly, Christian message.

This takes the form of a priest who is captured and tortured by Helga’s Viking fosterers, provokes in her the first stirrings of love and compassion and affords the young girl opportunity to embrace the process which results in the fusing of her day/night time personalities and her achievement of wholeness in mind and form.

However, the culmination of this process is complicated somewhat by the priest’s death at the hands of robbers and his subsequent appearance in a dream vision and by the denouement of the tale which sees the Changeling Child whisked away to heaven by the priest only to return a short time later and find her original home now long lost to the ravishes of time.

The Rip Van Winkle like nature of the priest’s ‘heaven’ may give inkling  to the original story source for this episode, as might his appearance on horse-back wielding his cross much like a knight would wield his sword.

As an other-world component of the story the Christian priest is perhaps less dramatically successful than he might be as a ‘Fairy King’ or ‘Lord of Light’ but still gives us pause for thought and contemplation as to the precise mode of consciousness his figure represents.

That’s almost all, folks…

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 ‘What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

long live the weeds and the wildness yet.’

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All photographs – Sue Vincent.

All epithets – The Grateful Dead, ‘Mountains of the Moon’.

Epitaph -‘Inversnaid’, Gerard Manly Hopkins.

Fresh air

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I had an odd and unexpected encounter today. One of those chance meetings that seem small and unimportant yet which leave a mark deeper than we realise at the time. I had wandered over to the next village this afternoon… on a quest for information about a legendary tree…one with a history some two thousand years in its growing. While I did not find the one I was looking for, I found what I needed to know about its eventual demise and unlooked for replacement. Of course, Quainton is a glorious old village with wonderful buildings… and so many overhead cables that getting a decent shot is nigh on impossible. But although I had the inevitable camera in tow, that was not my primary reason for the jaunt. I just needed air. It has been a rough few days.

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I met a lovely old gentleman in the churchyard who taught me a lot about the village and showed me the oldest buildings still standing there, telling me of the medieval forge and culvert discovered under one of the houses when it was renovated. We walked through the village together and he told me of how it had changed over the years, pointing out the chaffinches, dragonflies and blue-tits as we walked, and taking time to show me the house-martin’s nests under the eaves of one of the houses. It was a slow, leisurely progress, stopping every few steps for the dog to sniff and my companion to rest. He was a very old man.

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It is a mellow place with the traditional village green bordered by cottages whose roofs are sighing with age and the George and Dragon… what else?… looks out to the ancient preaching cross and the windmill that is the most visible landmark of the village.

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It is the details that I notice though. The little marks of human hands and humour, like the variety of thatch creatures perched on the roofs, the village pump, or the small crosses carved into the stone of the church by pilgrims who have long since reached their ultimate destination. In many of the churches there are little games carved into the pillars and walls near the pews… often low enough to be out of sight of the officiant. You can imagine small hands surreptitiously working away to make these miniature game boards, whiling away the boredom, perhaps, of a service then in Latin and beyond their reach.

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I love the quirkiness of the fads and fancies that traverse the ages… from the civic pomp and ceremony of the Victorians to the graphic representations of death from earlier times.. the memento mori that may appear gruesome or shocking to our eyes today, yet which served as a reminder that in death there is neither princely estate nor poverty… it is the great leveller of all and in the beyond of their belief only the riches of virtue would hold meaning. In an era before the advent of antiseptics and antibiotics, when life was fragile and tenuous and dying not a sanitised process, perhaps they did not shrink as we do today from its presence.

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My companion and I stopped before the place that had once been the old rectory, now undergoing renovation. He admired the new capstones on the gateposts while I quietly admired a bronzed and shirtless Adonis worthy of any sculptor’s efforts.  The old man asked me suddenly what it was that made me take photographs… what was it I tried to capture? I turned my glance from the flexed and gleaming muscles to the equal and warmer beauty of the wrinkled face and the twinkling, questioning eyes. I had a fleeting vision of the thousands of pictures on my hard drive… birds and flowers, skies and buildings, trees and faces, architecture and hilltops, history and humour…and realised I had never really asked myself that question. For a moment, looking mentally at that dizzying array of images I was at a complete loss. There was, it seemed, no common thread. A mish-mash of images, a plethora of subjects… They are not all pretty pictures, not all are gentle, some are harsh, some wild, some dark… and beauty is such a subjective vision anyway…

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Then I saw it, the common denominator, winding through them all, a sparkling cord that bound them together. I chuckled as I understood the Ariadne’s thread that has always led me, I think. “Life,” I answered, still laughing at myself. “I love Life.” My companion smiled and nodded, satisfied, as if he were a teacher and I a dense pupil who had finally understood. Maybe he was right.

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Mist on the Moors

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… We met up with author and blogger Graeme Cumming and his partner for another wander over the moors. We followed a path that leads from a place of hoary legend and gory history, where a headless body was found, up onto a moor cloaked in low clouds.

We climbed to the plateau, sharing the archaeological features on the way… features mostly hidden by mist and bracken. In the distance, limestone cliffs shelter this place that is hidden in plain sight, unseen from the road that snakes through the valley.

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From here you can see the distinctive shapes of the hills that are shadowed in stone… except that we couldn’t as they were wreathed in cloud. But what you can see, if you know where to look, is a stone circle.

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Like all the circles in this area, the stones are quite small…as if their builders knew that power resides in what lies behind the symbol, not in the form itself. The land seems to centre on the circle and we have passed hours watching the dome of the sky sparkle above us.

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But we haven’t been back for two years… and here, as at Barbrook, reeds and bracken begin to encroach on the space within the stones. For the first time here, there is a sense of unease… not about the land, but an overlay, imposed and alien.

Looking at the stone named for the Fae, where their lights, it is said, can sometimes be seen dancing, we saw a possible reason why. The hollow  in the top of the stone was filled with something that I hoped, just for a second, was a mangled plum… but which I knew was nothing so acceptable.

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The fresh entrails of some small creature… no fur or feathers, no bones of sign of predator, were neatly placed in the hollowed stone. A fire pit in the centre of the circle held newly burned cinders…evidence of a Friday night sojourn beneath a full moon. It is not the first time we have found offerings here, though usually they are just flowers. Nothing so darkly disturbing as this.

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We walked the circle, weaving light about the stones and did what we could. I love these moors and the ancient places they shelter and feel a responsibility to care for them. There was no caring in what we had found. For the first time, we did not linger and I, for one, felt nothing but anger and distaste for what had been done.

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Last Call for Castlerigg…

sculpture, abbots bromley

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Tarot Card – The Fool: Penetrated Egoic Nature

results in a ‘reckless fool’.

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‘There and back again…’

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

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The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

J.R.R Tolkien

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‘The Hero’s Journey’


Photograph – courtesy, the estate of Sue Vincent

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‘…For three days Gwythyr-the-Bright journeyed

in the gullet of the Black Salmon of the Lake of Light.’

– Crucible of the Sun

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In his book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’,  Joseph Campbell used knowledge of philosophy and psychology to describe how many human myths share a common fundamental structure, which he called the Monomyth.

What does the Mono-Myth describe?

What relevance does it have to seekers of light in the 21st Century?

How are the Ancient Sacred Sites of all lands linked to these questions?

And what techniques can we bring to bear when departing the ordinary world and embarking on adventures in the sacred realms of the Supernatural Order?

Join the Silent Eye on this magical landscape workshop in the Cumbrian Hills of the Lake District, UK which takes place over the weekend of  May 6th-8th, 2022.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com