Painted Lady; Tattooed Lady

Butterflies are creatures of deep significance for me. They combine great beauty, joy and spirit with the power of transformation. These past few years have been times of great personal upheaval; unavoidable change has been an ongoing theme and butterflies have been a constant companion on my soul journey, encouraging me at times of struggle, reminding me that transformation is always possible, bringing joy and freedom despite the difficulties. They have helped me to learn how to embrace the changes; to be a little less afraid of where they are taking me.

Today was glorious, the sun turning the ocean turquoise, the strong winds lively and energising. I walked along the cliff path to Shanklin to book an appointment with my tattooist. I am a great believer in the use of body art as a spiritual tool; each of my tattoos marks an important moment in my life and development, each possessing a deeper spiritual significance for me. Of course there is nothing wrong in merely decorative body art, but my inclination goes deeper. Perhaps it is the fact that I am placing something beneath my skin, that a symbol – with all it accompanying power and meaning – becomes layered into my being. My tattooist Nick – whose own body art has deep spiritual significance for him also – describes tattoos as coloured scars. This adds to their power for me; our scars – the indelible marks of our experience – turned into art and celebrated. Sometimes I feel as if they have risen up through the skin, surfacing from a deep place inside, a testimony of each rite of passage, a lesson learnt or a blessing acknowledged. This week I will have a butterfly tattooed upon my wrist, acknowledging the gifts of my relationship with these extraordinary creatures.

On my walk today, nature – as if to support my decision to make their image a part of me – graced the cliff path with vast numbers of Painted Lady Butterflies. These seemingly fragile creatures have just arrived on the Island having survived their arduous migration from northern Africa. There were so many, the strong winds carrying them like shedding leaves, swirling chaotically around my head and body. They crowded on the red valerian and daisies, sharing the warmth of the sun and the sweetness of the nectar with the bees. Stood closely, watching them, I was so moved to have them rise up in clouds about me. They are joyous and ethereal reminders of the beauty of life – both its fragility and strength. They also have many links to the soul: in Russia they are babochka, ‘little soul’ and the ancient Greeks called them psyche, that eternal part of us that experiences it own countless transformations. In Hungarian they are pillango, a ‘creature of the moment’ and as such they remind me also to engage fully with life, no matter where I might find myself. Butterflies feed upon the sweetness of life; I pray I may never overlook the joy that my own life has been graced with.

Walk the Wight 2009

Dad, Laurie, Trish and a Gale Force Wind - Walk the Wight 2009

Dad, Laurie, Trish and a Gale Force Wind - Walk the Wight 2009

Yesterday, Laurie, Dad, Trish, myself and twelve thousand other intrepid souls braved gale force winds and driving rain to ‘Walk the Wight’ in order to raise money for the Isle of Wight’s Earl Mountbatten Hospice. The full route is 26 miles from the eastern to the western tip of the island. Some walk the full length but there are also options to walk the 12.5 miles from Bembridge in the east to Carisbrooke in the centre, or the 14 miles from Carisbrooke to Alum Bay in the west. This year a flat walk was introduced for wheelchair users and buggies using the eight mile long cycle track that runs from Newport to Sandown. The event has expanded rapidly since the original walk in the early nineties, where only a handful of people set out to raise cash. I don’t expect any of the original walkers could have predicted the interest their idea would spark in future years. The main route walks the chalk spine of the Wight. We chose the 14 miles to Alum Bay, which actually follows the island’s Tennyson Trail. It takes in some incredibly beautiful downland with stunning views of the mainland, the island and the sea.

We left Carisbrooke late morning. They were already many walkers finishing their trek from Bembridge, some stopping here, others carrying on with us. There was a lovely carnival atmosphere, folks in fancy dress, many already covered in mud from the morning downpour, spirits still high. It was hard not be lifted by the sense of community. The mass of humanity moving out across the countryside was a wonderful sight. I was touched by people’s willingness to brave the appallingly strong winds and the gathering rains to help keep our local hospice open.

The beginning of the route walked around the moat of Carisbrooke Castle, its steep banks covered in buttercups and valerian. Following the trail up onto the downs through tunnels of abundant hawthorn blossom and cow parsley, like a thick and endless line of ants, we began the long walk west. A seemingly inexhaustible thread of walkers stretched out beyond us and behind us; adults of all ages, children and dogs. As we entered Brighstone Forest the rain began. By the time we had emerged from the trees out onto the exposed chalk track that rises and falls in steep undulations westward to the Needles, the rain was heavy and the full impact of the gale force winds was battering us face on. The extreme winds turned the raindrops into sharp missiles that stung the skin. Luckily, we had each packed our waterproofs, head to foot coverage that inflated with the wind’s gusts.

At the Mottistone check point there were welcome hot drinks, and here the rain began to ease for a while, the wind fearsome enough to dry us and the ground quickly (not to mention blow my coffee out of my cup!). It is strange how soon one can adapt to extremes. Nicely cocooned in my waterproofs, I came to accept the constant struggle, adjusting to the added use of energy it took just to keep my body vertical. We walked for mile upon mile into an exhausting head wind that never once relented. I found that to think of the end goal was counterproductive; staying in the moment – opening to it and accepting it – helped enormously in keeping me positive and focused. The wind, at points, was alarming, with violent gusts and a constant strength that meant you could lean your full weight into it and remain supported. The sense of shared endurance was heartening and helped to keep us all going.

Gazing out to sea it became possible to predict the next down pour. Ahead could be a stretch of welcome blue sky but racing across the ocean towards us were rain heavy clouds, thick and murky, erasing the horizon and merging with the darkening water. Many folks were not dressed for rain and I was amazed at their determination to keep going no matter how uncomfortable they must have been.

The last arduous stretch up over Tennyson and West High Down towards the Needles was tough, the wind relentlessly in our faces. Behind us, we could see the long route we had walked stretching out along West Wight’s high places; thick black cloud in the east darkened even further by the sun in the west; patches of light sweeping across the land between the speeding cloud cover. Before us the broken cloud scattered spotlights of sun upon the ocean, dazzling circles of light on its grey surface. Beauty is always around us, even when we ourselves are struggling.

Making it across the finish line at Alum Bay was a welcome experience. We were all awarded with a medal, which actually felt well earned. I was so proud of our little group’s achievements but also of all the others who walked that day. Not only is it a touching community event for such a vital and worthy cause – a wonderful measure of what each of us can achieve for a common good – it also illustrates the strength of our inner resources, our ability to dig deep in order to pull through. I am looking forward to next year’s event – come rain or shine – but for now my stiff old bones are enjoying the rest!

Sacred Sex and the Goddess and God of Beltane

Lady of the earth’s desire and the earth’s yielding, of the sap rising and the embrace of longing, as the kiss of the sun awakens you, we too are awakened to the yearning of our bodies and souls. As you unfurl each petal, you release the scent of bluebells, may and apple blossom – this is your love song, your call to union – and we too must answer.

It is hard to resist loving this time of year, everything feels gloriously alive and renewed; the blossom abundant; the green of the trees that special shade that our eyes seem magnetically drawn to. The colour of bluebells has an equally mesmerising effect, as if we are thirsty for it, that rare, vivid, unearthly blue that dissolves and overwhelms our defences with joy. 

Beltane is the festival of the Sacred Union of the Goddess and God. It’s a deeply joyous affair, celebrating sexuality on many levels, its rites ultimately honouring our striving for that union of the Divine Masculine and Feminine deep within us. I always think of it as exploring that magical process when we truly open to another – just as the blossom to the bee – and in the surrendering of that boundary become something more than ourselves. Love and sex bring us some of our most profound experiences; some ecstatically joyous; others deeply painful – but at best they open us and let the mystery of another’s being flood into that intimate, hidden space, changing us.

I have always been very interested in the spiritual dimensions of sex. From very early on, I had an inkling that sex had the potential to be a gateway to God which was rather strange considering my early experiences of it, which at best were rather empty, superficial teenage fumbling, at worst humiliating abuse. Even at the lowest moments of the abusive relationship in my teens, when sex really did feel like the sharpest and most brutal of weapons to my young psyche, I knew deep down that in its purest form it could be a profoundly connecting and intensely spiritual act. What my early experience taught me was that it takes a great deal of courage to let sex work on you in that way because such an experience demands a mutual surrendering; a letting go of all that keeps us feeling safe; a stripping away of those masks that hide our vulnerability. In abusive relationships you have a dynamic where that surrendering is being actively forced upon one party by another; the enforcer does their utmost to surrender nothing – they control the surrender by force or coercion and vicariously experience it for themselves whilst retaining a sense of power. Such an approach is mainly about power – it’s not even really about sex. Sex becomes an enticing setting because it is potentially where we expose our greatest vulnerability.

Sex can be the most meaningless of acts, a superficial if pleasurable sensation; it can be a battlefield, the most painful wedge of separation between two people; it can also be a gateway to another’s deepest being, a connecting force between the soul of one to another; it can bring an intensity of emotion and feeling that blows life as we know it apart – all known signposts gone – and from this intensely vulnerable and alive place, a new potential of being can be born. Spiritual sex, sex that engages the body, mind emotions and soul surely takes us to the Divine within, shows us most vividly a glimpse of that Divine Union that we strive for within us, the union that Beltane is ultimately about.

Our particular Beltane rituals tend to focus quite a lot on self-worth. I think for many people there is a lot of healing to be done with regard to sexuality and intimacy; good boundaries and healthy self- esteem are so important. It can be easy to make sexual and emotional choices that are less than good for us when we have a fragile sense of self. Self-love and care are psychologically strengthening; they help to bring clarity and re-engage us with a healthy and flexible self-protective instinct. We start to develop better judgement in deciding ‘what’ and ‘who’ are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.

The Goddess and God of Beltane – as I understand them – touch me deeply and help to heal my old wounds. The Goddess is the Lady of the Heart’s Blossoming, Divine Lover, setting fire to our bellies with Her joyous heat and animating our bodies with the blissful energy of Her love. We honour Her as Queen of the May, Lady of Life and Love, naked and radiant with the power of Her desire. She reveals to us the joy of union, the exquisite unfurling of body, mind and spirit. Crucially She teaches us that the treasure of our Yoni is truly precious, a place of inspired creation and pleasure, the gateway to life, challenging the often derogatory and confused undercurrent that seems to underpin attitudes to female sexual organs and sexuality; she taps us in to their deeper power and significance. In Her heart burn the fires of love, both the love of self and of others. She holds up Her mirror and reflects back to us our true beauty and worth. When we gaze at our reflection, we see Her beautiful face, body and being. I have learned that Her beauty is our beauty, that in valuing and loving ourselves, we are honouring and loving Her. She expresses the wisdom that without such loving self-care we can never truly open to another. She is passion, joy and creativity; queen of her own body, emotions, mind and spirit but also striving for joyous union with the world and others: She is the needy heat of desire; powerful self-love and the passionate love of others; She is ecstasy and the dance of life; She is sensuality and deep connection; She is the intimacy of skin upon skin. We feel Her pulsing though us when we fall in love, when desire takes over; when we reach out to touch the soul of another. We also feel her when we take joy in ourselves, when we feel and see our own beauty and worth. Historically She has been given a terribly hard time. She has been called whore and punished for Her beauty and Her power. She is often the one within us that needs the most healing.

The God of Beltane expresses a joyous desire, he is Lord of the waxing earth and sun; vibrant spirit of the wildwood whose green blood fires our hearts. He is the moist fingers of outstretched leaves and His vibrant growth is the tender hand that moves upon the body of the Goddess. He is the warm kiss of sunlight, the heat of passion and the dance of life. He has helped to heal a great deal in me, teaching that the treasures of His Sacred Phallus are not violence, senseless aggression or abuse but strength, passion and reverence. He is our energy and vigour. He is the Great Spark of Light and Life, and as bluebells cover the woodland floors; apple and hawthorn trees blossom and everywhere grows lush and green, His desire intensifies. At Beltane He hears the voice of the Goddess deep in the greenwood and with joy answers her call, drawn by her glorious scent, striving to merge and surrender to the bliss of her embrace. He is the heat of passion; the sweet pain of yearning; the reverence that true intimacy and love inspires. Through Him we are transformed by desire; we open to the mystery of another; we die to our separate selves and become the ecstasy of life. He touches us with His urgency; move us with His need; take us to the core of ourselves.

Beltane encourages us to ask – ‘What is life without passion and connection?’ It opens us to the extraordinary energy of our desire but also to the deeply empathetic nature of our being, one that strives to relate, make connections, open ever further to  the mystery of life. This Beltane, may each of us be blessed with deep and abiding love – of self, others, our planet – and through those healing fires of love and passion, may we each find our true path to Union within.