The Bull on the Path and the Summer Solstice

The festivals of the Wheel of the Year are the foundation of spiritual practice for many Pagans. After almost twelve years of the turning of that Wheel in my own life, I am still discovering fresh perspective on each of these seasonal celebrations. We can initially favour certain festivals over others, perhaps because the themes of such reflect something of our own personalities and life experience. However the joy of this beautiful, elegant system is that ultimately it encourages us to strive towards wholeness, integrating the lessons and wisdom of the entire Wheel within our beings.

I think perhaps I am a bit of a Samhain gal by nature. Fascinated by the shadows and the power of transformation, my life journey has also brought me into contact with the issues of death and release many times. However, it is not healthy for any of us to become stuck in one season of being; life cannot thrive in a perpetual autumn (or for that matter perpetual summer!). The Wheel teaches us to engage with the changing face of nature and the flow of our own lives, reaching deep into the season of any moment to grasp it essence, seeing its manifestation both in the world outside and deep within us.

Here in the Northern hemisphere, we have just celebrated the Summer Solstice. It has taken me many years to really grasp this particular festival. I understood it intellectually and enjoyed the celebrations that I shared; however, the deeper meaning eluded me emotionally until a couple of years ago.

Although the Solstice signals the longest day – and therefore the beginning of the slow descent back into the darker days – it is a festival of blessings, pleasure and fullness. The Divine Union of Beltane is now united in wholeness, those complimentary and interwoven energies of the Goddess and God building to a peak. At the solstice, the blessings that this union produces are all around us; life swells into the sensual abundance of summer; the earth’s blossoms, colours and perfumes vivid and plentiful.

I like to think of the Goddess at this time as the Mother of Sweetness, the ecstasy of the earth, who opens us to her joy and fulfilment, brightening our cells with the strength of her love and pleasure. Here on the Island I see her as the rich red earth – the fertile ground of my being – the explosion of life, colour and joy that, if I let it, can enrapture my senses and feed my being. The Mother of Sweetness on this beautiful Island is the heady scent of honeysuckle and rose; the cool peace of forests; the exhilarating skies of downland; a field of poppies and corn chamomile. She is the vital rains, lush rivers and wetland teeming with life; the deep wells and springs. The hem of her gown is the ocean that encircles the Wight, its salt water cleansing and healing our deepest wounds. The Mother of Sweetness is the keeper of the abundant and overflowing chalice of life that renews and nourishes, and her cup is the place within us that can never run dry. Each animal and plant, each drop of water, each clod of earth is radiant with her spirit.

The God is the delight of our creative power, opening us to the energy and inspiration that enables us to live our time here fruitfully; as Father of the Solstice sun, his heat makes fertile the body of the Goddess; his light sparkling upon her surfaces and energising her depths. He is the sun to her moon; the fire to her water. Together they nourish, nurture and bring all life to fruition. From the chalice of the Goddess all blessing abundantly pour, each one shining with the God’s golden spirit.

We can be blinkered to the blessings around us. There are times for all of us when our own emotional turmoil or confusion dulls our vision; perhaps we are hurting or grieving and this is making it difficult for us to feel that our lives are full. That’s ok too. The Wheel teaches us that all things pass. It is helpful to check in with ourselves regularly in order to gauge which season is moving through our lives, trying to honour these as best we can. However, there are times in our day to day living when we can forget to show gratitude for the blessings that we each possess. The summer solstice reminds us about the deep connection between gratitude and our ability to experience joy and happiness. These qualities radiate from within; they are not found in circumstance itself or received from external forces as we sometimes mistakenly assume. Certainly there are events and relationships that bring us joy and happiness, but our ability to benefit from these is largely dependent upon our inner state; if we constantly focus on a perceived lack, we fail to recognise the good things that come our way. More importantly, we cannot afford to rely on these external influences for our continued joy; their transience is a reality for all of us. Happiness can appear to be so elusive because we shape it into a future event, one that is always just in or out of reach. We can also fear our own capacity for joy, limiting it via guilt or a lack of self-worth. The ways of self-sabotage are many in life. The Summer Solstice can remind us of the simple pleasure of being fully present in the moment. The equation is actually quite a simple one: the more gratefully aware we are of our blessings, the happier we feel in ourselves.

I learned a great solstice lesson from an animal that I actually have quite an ambiguous relationship with. I have always been rather afraid of bulls. Being a keen walker, I encounter them often. Farmers seem to take great glee in placing them in fields with footpaths. We are told that when they are with the herd they will ignore people. Having seen a man cycling across a field full of cows being chased by a bull, I am not so trusting of this assumption!

With most things we fear, there is often an equal fascination. The very same qualities that alarm me about bulls – their awesome physical power, inscrutability (can you tell what a bull is thinking?) and strength – have a powerful draw for me too. They are quite extraordinary and beautiful but they get my heart seriously pumping, my flight response on red alert.

Just before the summer solstice, our first year on the Island, I had the opportunity to come face to face with my fear. We were making our way back after a nice walk along the narrow woodland path at the north base of Tennyson Down. There is a steep, wooded climb to one side and a fence closely running along on the other. He appeared suddenly – a large, muscular black bull. His bulk took up the entire path and he was plodding with an unstoppable determination towards us. I was genuinely terrified. My instinct was to try and climb the steep wooded bank but within a couple of feet I was caught up in brambles, unable to move any further. He passed me on his steady climb up the path, so close to me I could hear his laboured snorting and the heaviness of his breathe. I was so afraid I couldn’t look at him, praying that he would just pass, which of course he did. I knew that he could only get so far before he met the impassable ‘kissing’ gate. I started to frantically shoo everyone down along the path, fearing his return. Within a few paces we were stopped by an old lady with her dog. She asked us if we had seen a lone dog on our walk – some holiday makers had lost theirs and having to return to the mainland without finding it, this kind lady had promised to continue the search for them. By this stage the bull had started to bellow, obviously having met the gate that prevented further passage through. Soon he would turn and come back down. His gut churning bellow was like the gates of Hades opening; a noise of knee trembling proportions. I tried to explain to the lady that there was a bull on the path (could she not hear him?!?) but she either didn’t seem to be listening or was totally unconcerned. When I finally got through to her, she asked me if the bull was black. At last! Yes!! ‘Oh’ she replied ‘he’s no trouble’.

I will never forget the sight of this tiny, frail old lady in her pink beret, wondering off merrily into the path of the beast from the abyss. For her, the bull was a ‘sweetie’ and I felt rather silly stood there with the cold taste of fear in my mouth, fighting an overwhelming desire to run.

Safely ensconced in the pub with a welcome pint, I relaxed enough to feel rather pleased about my close encounter with the bull. Moving to the Island after such difficult times, I had realised how crisis addicted I had become. As an antidote, I was making a conscious effort to embrace the abundance of this new life that I had been gifted with. It felt ungracious to respond any other way. I had made the decision to psychologically lay down my arms, take my focus away from the pain and struggle and reconnect to my joy. How apt that I should meet face to face with this great symbol of the life force and its awesome fertility and plenty, just as I was taking the plunge to tentatively trust life again. My lovely black bull seemed to be saying ‘Hey! I am life in all its awesome wonder and power – time to face me – no turning back, deal with me!’ Without doubt, my fear of him – of his potentially destructive power – says a great deal about my own fear of life’s ability to inflict pain, and yet, life is so full of blessings too – abundantly full (those enormous balls swinging between his legs let you know just how much!). We can’t let fear stop us from living.

My bull taught me that life is many things; it brings us sorrow, loss and pain along the way, even danger and fear, but we should never allow these to blind us to the gifts we receive; to the sheer delight that living can bring.  To say a daily prayer of thanks enables each of us to open more fully to life’s abundance; in gratitude there is power and the strength to weather any season.

Old 'Sweetie' himself!

Old 'Sweetie' himself!

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Memory, Time and Space.

Just recently I heard of a friend’s sudden death. I had not seen this person for years but he had played a major part in a particularly happy time in my life; a creative and joyful time emerging from the darkness of my early teens. We were so young, knowing each other at that point in life when the possibilities appeared infinite and the obstacles few. I was always impressed with the energy of his focus and self-belief; he seemed to have little doubt that he would achieve some kind of greatness.

We were employed as part of a small group that performed educational plays for children, travelling around schools in an old converted ambulance or performing them at our base in the local drama centre. The group was part of the then controversial Youth Opportunities Programme set up by Thatcher’s government in the early eighties. Compared to most placements on this draconian and rather pointless scheme, the drama centre groups were wonderful and creative, an expansive series of projects that somehow slipped through the net of Thatcher’s deeply negative ideological prejudices. It couldn’t be allowed to last. The government axed the drama groups, allegedly as a money saving exercise – it was a heart-breaking moment.

I loved going to work each day. The whole experience rather ruined me for ‘normal’ employment, giving me a tantalising glimpse of a working life that could transcend the drudgery that my poor father had endured to support his family. It intensified my desire to only ever accept work that was fulfilling, that possessed real meaning for me (necessity has occasionally meant otherwise!).

There were seven in the group, all of us harbouring dreams of working in theatre. I was training to be a dancer, loved singing and yearned to do both on the stage. My friend wanted to be an actor. Strangely, we each ended up singing in bands, he having the most material success, all that energy and self-belief too intense to be denied. The last time I saw him his band had just been signed to Warner Brothers and looked like breaking through in a major way. Sadly, despite being signed to three separate labels with different bands over the years, he never really broke through in the manner he would have wanted. Over time, news filtered back that he had developed a serious heroine habit. I am unsure but it seems likely that this was in some way responsible for his sudden death at his home in L.A. He was 42.

I have been surprised at how upset I have felt; how at odds his shockingly early demise is to my memory of him. Of all the endings that could have befallen him, I would never have envisaged this. Despite the regrettable sense of romance he felt regarding the relationship between drugs and music, I always assumed he would still emerge intact. My memory of him is so closely tied to hopeful beginnings, to wide open futures that hadn’t yet been tied down by responsibility or circumstance, that hadn’t yet been channelled or narrowed by experience and lessening expectations. He is so vitally alive in my memory, full of that awesome sense of ‘going somewhere’ that he always seemed to exude. Looking at the photos of us at seventeen, it strikes me how time and space really mean nothing in that inner place.

What is also painful to admit is that he symbolises something of the hopes I had for myself back then; the belief that dreams would be realised. If I am honest, my genuine sadness at his death is also a little tinged with the acknowledgement that many of my own dreams died far too early, never quite breaking through.

And yet, memories are not just dead and lifeless things; they keep us connected to something vital in ourselves, helping us to feel the threads of our being woven into the core of life. Joy and hope, anticipation and the belief that our living is not in vain are fundamentals, ones that – despite the disappointments and regrets that we might each encounter – are always there for us to return to. Like the people, places and events that remain so vibrant in our memories, these qualities are never truly lost.

On the Couch

I spent last Tuesday in London for my Birthday – a really lovely day. We discovered this wonderful outsized, outdoors, living room in front of the National Theatre on the South Bank. I love the way it makes everyone look like children. Note the wonderful detail of flying  ducks!

Dad and Maria Cosy Up With Some Strangers

Dad and Maria Cosy Up With Some Strangers

 

london birthday 2009 044

Sekhmet: Lady of Life

There is an extraordinary statue of the Egyptian lion-headed goddess Sekhmet in the British Museum in London. In fact, there are several, but one in particular stands out for me. I remember reading the book Voices from the Goddess. In the chapter entitled The Path of the Solar Priestess (a wonderful exploration of Sekhmet and Hathor) the author – Sunflower – mentions a Sekhmet statue in the museum that she described as feeling very ‘alive’. I felt sure that I knew exactly which one that she referred to.

I always pay my respects to this particular statue of Sekhmet whenever I visit the British Museum. She is made of black granite, seated, holding the Ankh in her left hand. She never fails to move me greatly, the hairs on my neck rising in her presence. I find her mesmerising. I also feel a great sense of sadness that she stands here as a museum piece when to me she still speaks so powerfully.

I highly recommend Sunflower’s chapter in Voices form the Goddess for anyone drawn to this extraordinary goddess. Sekhmet, like the Hindu Kali, can appear to be a forbidding and fearful presence and yet when we engage with these aspects of the Dark Goddess we potentially open ourselves to profound healing and transformation. Sekhmet’s awesome qualities serve life – she doesn’t hold the Ankh for nothing. Her destruction is cleansing and ultimately compassionate, offering us the potential to become more authentically ourselves. Sunflower articulates this beautifully:

The dark and bloody Goddesses of transformation are always healers. They direct us to those forbidden inner territories where our blocked energies have been locked up and bolted down for years…Each time I stood in the blinding light, heat and noise of the fires of Sekhmet, it was like being in the alembic of an alchemist, the repetition building on itself, purifying. The alembic of the fiery temple was both my womb and heart, I was able to surrender to the flames of my fear, painful memories, lack of trust and low self-esteem and experience the phoenix-like rebirth of a revitalised spirit.

One of Sekhmet’s titles was ‘The Lady of Life’. Her energies may feel extremely difficult and challenging when we feel them moving through our lives but the clearing of the ground she often initiates protects our best interests; she is an initiator; the catalyst for change and growth. During a particularly difficult time, I once dreamed of a beautiful hedge surrounding a house; someone had set fire to it and I was distressed to see this. I was suddenly shown the inside of the house; as the hedge burned away to ash, sunlight began pouring in through the windows. Sekhmet’s fires cleanse and clear a space for clarity, for realisation, for healing and rebirth. For me, her connection to the gentler cat goddess Bast is most clearly felt in this moment of transition – Sekhmet the midwife of our transformations, delivering us into the renewed trust and joy of Bast.

I include here a poem by Sunflower, a beautiful testimony to the healing power of the Goddess Sekhmet.

 Blessing of Sekhmet

 Do not fear me, you who have come from afar to seek my wisdom,

For I am also the Goddess of Healing.

From the fires of destruction, new life is born.

The hardest of battles is that which you wage against yourself.

It is I who will give you the strength to fight these battles;

Not so you might vanquish your enemy, but that you might struggle

To break through the battle-lines of the warring fragments

Of yourself, that they may at last be re-united.

 

Through me, see your inner anger released, burning like dry reeds,

Turning to black, fertile ash, to scatter on the lands

Of your inner self.

Now you have won your trial by fire,

You have earned the gift of inner light, may you always grow with it.

Come now, kindle a spark from my healing flame,

Let it grow within you.

It is the fire of your spirit,

Which gives you eternal strength.

                                                                         Sunflower

Sekhmet - British Museum

Sekhmet - British Museum

 

Sekhmet - British Museum

Sekhmet - British Museum

Nemetona, Inspiration and the Breath of Life

'Sanctuary' - Mara Friedman

'Sanctuary' - Mara Friedman

The glorious weather has lured me away from the screen. Sometimes I wonder what is more important: experiencing nature or writing about experiencing it. I seem to be so strongly drawn to both; one like a wonderful opening that takes little effort but seems to bring so much joy, peace and connection; the other demanding an active, disciplined labouring. Within me (within all of us) the passive nature of being receptive, of listening, of being filled by the magic of something needs to be balanced by a striving to express – they are the Yin and Yang of creativity. I seem to have become overwhelmingly Yin, my Yang floundering and flat.

Recently, Laurie and I spent an incredibly lazy afternoon on our backs in the sun at the Ventnor Botanic Gardens. The gardens used to be the site of the old lung hospital. More accurately, the car park used to be the site of the building itself, a very impressive Victorian affair, built upon a terrace overlooking the gardens and the sea. Situated in the special micro-climate of the Undercliff, the conditions were believed to be conducive to the healing of illnesses of the lung – mostly TB. There are wonderful old photographs of patients in their beds on the open terraces, fresh air viewed as the key to successful treatment. Now the hospital is gone but the gardens remain. They are the site of a wonderful arboretum of trees from around the planet; plants from exotic continents thriving in the unusual warmth of the Undercliff.

Laid beneath a eucalyptus tree – basking like the garden’s wall lizards – we spent an inactive couple of hours soaking up the sun. Laurie snored; I pondered. The blissful singing of a blackbird in the neighbouring tree was soon replaced by the equally beautiful song of a robin above. I thought of how one’s lungs are so crucial to the act of singing, of speaking and expressing one’s own voice. It seemed so wonderfully apt that a place once dedicated to illnesses of the lungs was now home to so many trees, themselves the lungs of our planet, enabling each of us to breathe freely and thrive.

Trees are such a central part of my spirituality and, – as a modern pagan druid – I am particularly drawn to the Romano- British goddess Nemetona. Her name roughly translates as ‘Goddess of the Sacred Grove’. Very little is known of her but for many modern pagans she is the personification of the grove or sacred circle that we worship within. For some, this is extended to include our own personal aura, that subtle body that marks our boundaries in a deeper, more intangible way.

In building a relationship with her these last few years, she has become a powerful source of inspiration and comfort. I believe that her essence resides in the sacred space of our hearts; her presence shimmering in those special places where the sanctuary of our being widens to inhabit the sacredness of the earth. For me, she is very much about our relationship with nature, what happens when we engage with the earth in an intimate way. Every time I cast circle and open to all that is holy within and around me, I feel her peace and connectedness fill the space. In this way (for me) she is not just a goddess of the grove; she wears the changing colours of place and time and she has become the animating spirit at the core of my spiritual practices.

I first became aware of her whilst meditating in the woods. I had a very strong, clear vision of a dark haired woman dressed in green stood before me. She was wearing an extraordinary headdress that seemed to be made from the red, green and black feathers of a green woodpecker. She exuded a powerfully centred and serene energy. I had no idea who she was or what she represented but, over time, it became clear that in recalling that vision, I repeatedly felt a sense of grounding and clarity that helped me enormously. This was to prove especially vital as my life travelled deeper into crisis. The energy of that original vision never seemed to be far away. I began to recognise its presence each time I cast circle and also each time I settled into meditation. I would feel it out in nature often and began to consciously call upon it in both times of need and times of calm.

Connecting a name to that special energy later came whilst reading Emma Restall Orr’s book Spirits of the Sacred Grove. She writes of Nemetona as a goddess of sanctuary:

Her arms enfold us within the sacred circle. She holds the temple that we might find the release to be soul naked and true, and to focus effectively.

This beautiful description resonated very strongly with my experience, and from that moment I came to call my mysterious green lady by her name.

Through my connection to Nemetona, I celebrate not only the beauty of the sacred circle but also the holy grove of my own heart and being. She is the sacred relationship that I strive to build with my environment and the many beings that inhabit it; she is the sacred relationship I strive to build with myself. My love of butterflies is strongly connected to her; the sacred circle is a richly layered Mandala of change, the spiralling cycles that brings us movement and transformation, not only in the physical world of the seasons but also in the cyclical natures of our emotions, minds, bodies and souls. Nemetona nurtures and supports that transformation, holding us in her peace, opening us to her wisdom that the changes might bring healing and flow to our lives. Her butterflies are the soul’s journey of freedom, movement and joy; they encourage us to recognise the quality of each season – whether of nature or life journey – that is working upon us at any one time. The letting go, the stasis, the waiting, the awakening, the blossoming, the fruiting – within Nemetona’s loving arms we can engage more fully with each, never losing sight of the eternal soul within.

As I listened to the birdsong, Nemetona’s connection to trees drew my thoughts to the link between these and the breath of life. Both are intimately interwoven with the drawing in of inspiration and the outward expression of our own unique voice – our own individual talent to create. This voice needs to be added to the multitude; our gifts expressed that the world might be further enriched by our contribution. It is a sad thing when our creative voices remain mute.

There is a strong tradition in Druidry between the sacred and our ability to create. When we each engage with the sacred, when we breathe it into out being, nourishing our cells and souls, we also feed our creativity, opening the channels for inspiration, and in doing so, transforming our creativity into an act of worship. There is an exchange that takes place – a breathing in of the one and an outpouring of the other – setting up a circuit as vital as the continuous exchange between the carbon dioxide and oxygen that we and the trees depend upon for life.

I often berate myself when I feel creatively stuck. More and more, I am coming to recognise that the key to moving through such moments is to open and receive in readiness for the moment that my voice sings out. Nemetona has taught me that the inhalation and exhalation of the breath of life – the acknowledgement of this as a sacred act – is the core of my inspiration. Sitting quietly, reaching for my still centre, letting her flood my heart, I feel that precious and true sense of belonging, peace and joy – I am fit to burst with it. Isn’t this why the bird sings? When we give our creativity to the world – responsibly and with love – we become a dawn chorus, a full throated celebration of the creative force of life that is daily reborn within us.