Singing over the Bones

The year is releasing itself, letting go with the kind of intense beauty that never fails to inspire awe in me. There was a time I used to dread this season, sensing the darkness closing in; the claustrophobia of the encroaching winter. Now I see how beautiful this time of year is. The sun is low in the sky producing a golden light whose filter adds an even greater warmth to the colour of autumn trees; the sunsets are vivid and mists gather in the folds and recesses of the land, hovering over water meadows and sliding down cliffs, reaching out across the sea until the boundary between land and ocean is no more and we can no longer tell where one world ends and another begins.

This blurring of the boundaries between worlds is very much a theme of the Pagan festival of Samhain which now approaches. As the year releases its grip on life, the harvest gathered and stored, the nights lengthening, we turn away from the light and growth and move towards the darkness and repose. It can be a challenging time because the darkness is not only about stillness, rest and germination – it is also the place where our fears lurk; our eyes do not adjust easily to its shadows and our anxieties twist and distort their shapes.

There comes a point when the darkness and stillness of winter have a peace about them; we get a real sense of life waiting beneath the soil for re-emergence; there is a restfulness – a natural, easy pause after the out breath of the year – that centres and calms us. Samhain’s energy proceeds this time and is much more vivid and intense, much the way that spring’s energy is, only then, of course, the energy surges outward, carrying into the world an expanding tide of life. I find autumn as intense but the energy is one that has built throughout the summer months to this moment of powerful release.

Birth and death can be chaotic and dangerous transitions; they connect us to our most primal instincts and emotions, powering through us, gripping us. Despite our efforts to remain poised and in control, we can find ourselves broken apart by the experience. Samhain functions like the breaking of an emotional dam, it is the release of orgasm, it is the death rattle of our last breath and the shocking gasp of our first – and all of these moments teach us that losing control is a necessary function. We all have to make peace with the fact that ultimately we are not in control. Life moves through us, at times with an intensity that shakes us; losing control demands that we place our trust in that intensity, learning to accept that it has the power to change us; that its presence in our lives is sometimes necessary for life to move on. We understand this most clearly when we find ourselves in experiences that speak of those vivid energies of spring and autumn: when we fall in love; when we are forced to begin again; when we are ill; when we are dying to our old selves and venturing into new ways to be.

Samhain may well stir our deepest fears of death but its lessons are invaluable and its powerful energy cathartic and potentially creative. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her wonderful ‘Women who run with the Wolves’, the Cailleach, or Death Mother -whom we meet when we explore this festival’s Mysteries – teaches us the wisdom of the bones. Estes writes that ‘in archetypal symbology, bones represent the indestructible force…the indestructible soul-spirit.’

And so,

You can dent the soul and bend it. You can hurt it and scar it. You can leave the marks of illness upon it, and the scotch marks of fear. But it does not die, for it is protected by ‘La Loba’ in the underworld. She is both the finder and incubator of bones…

…within us is the old one who collects bones. Within us there are the soul-bones of this wild self. Within us is the potential to be fleshed out again as the creature we once were. Within us are the bones to change ourselves and our world. Within us is the breath and our truths and longings – together they are the song, the creation hymn we have been yearning to sing…

Samhain teaches us how to recognise what must die and what must live in our lives. It can bring some tough realisations but its transformative energy gives us the opportunity to live a more authentic life.

Estes writes that ‘La Loba’ sings over the bones; her singing fleshes out those bones and, in time, reanimates them. So, what song will you sing this Samhain?



Planet Alice

The value of the Old Craft today is that in it lie the seeds of the Old Mystery Tradition. Through this the witch may perceive the beginnings of that ultimate in wisdom, knowledge of themselves and their motives. The genuine Mysteries are open to all, because anyone having experience enough can understand that basic message.         Robert Cochrane

For every action we make in our lives, we are so often unaware of the emotional energy that fuels that action. I think Robert Cochrane is absolutely right about the Craft (for me this includes Druidry too) potentially equipping us to move towards a greater self-awareness.

It is hard being honest with ourselves, not merely because we might be in denial about our own self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviour but because we live within the landscape of our being and not outside it. We are there at ground level, staring out over a limited view, so much of the territory beyond our field of vision. Knowledge of oneself is an ongoing process of discovery – it’s a continual unfolding of who we have been, are, and are to become, and yet, so often the picture we have of ourselves is so ridiculously incomplete. How often is it said that others see more clearly our potential and our flaws? We are in a constant process of drawing up and redrawing maps, our spiritual practices playing a great part in our being able to successfully negotiate the unfamiliar ground of ourselves, providing useful signposts when we feel lost. However, the complexity of the many living experiences – the input, or lack of, which brings any of us to any point in our lives – makes the path to self-understanding and self-knowledge a tricky one. Living sometimes feels frustratingly hard, difficult to judge and impossible to grasp.

This year has given me the (frankly unwanted) opportunity to ponder what negotiating oneself is like if we suddenly find that the signposts are not making sense. I still feel that my path is a Pagan one and I believe in the potential that Cochrane speaks of but struggling with my health throughout most of this year has brought the unexpected arrival of an annoying existential angst that, despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to shift. My health issues continue to throw up challenges and I can’t quite get my head around the fact that, just at the point I could do with the comfort of my spiritual practices, the connection I feel to them appears to be hanging on by the weakest of threads.

Reaching for that self-knowledge seems crucial right now but I discover the more I reach, the further away it becomes and so, I figure – like Alice trying to find her way around the illogical Wonderland she has unwittingly fallen into – logic will not work; the landscape I now find myself in has a different set of rules. Trying to learn them feels a little humiliating, a bit like a maths puzzle whereby I am forced to use skills that do not play to my strengths.

The Mysteries that Cochrane writes about, their gifts to us, cannot be forced or thought into being. They come about by an organic process that is actually a bit of a Mystery in itself, one that often we can only understand in retrospect.

And so, amongst the ongoing confusion, I am left to ponder two quotes by Stephen R. Covey:

Quality of life depends on what happens in the space between stimulus and response.

Live out of your imagination, not your history.

Laurie has recently bought a very interesting book entitled The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat –Zinn. I have just started reading and it looks extremely helpful with regard the questions that have been bothering me of late and that I have been writing about here: how do we stay mindful and present when we are in the midst of suffering or when we are ill or depressed?  The book appears to mix techniques from cognitive therapy and Eastern philosophy. Will let you know!

My Tobacco Life

My Tobacco Life


A fine blend of mistakes and other choice regrets

Rolled into a cigarette. Paper-thin shrouds:

These twenty ritual burnings a day, my funeral pyres

For the clothes of the dead.

I inhale deeply all that should be forgotten.

It lingers in airless lungs like the smell in empty wardrobes,

Long after the rake has ploughed the ashes for that singed

Scrap of dress, that curling corner of photo.

My face is a blue balloon, waiting for the great

Exhale. Life has seized into a rigor of memory,

Caught between the embrace

And the release, the breathing in

And out of relentless living.


There are some things that can not be burnt away,

They hang like smoke and showering ash.



Best and Worst Teachers

Laurie and I have recently been talking about who our best and worst teachers at school were. The best would have been those who inspired us, helped us to utterly engage with the subject and believe in our own abilities; the worst would be those that definitely didn’t.

My worst: second year senior school math teacher, Mrs Brady. We were all terrified of her; she was fierce and appeared to truly hate children, although now I suspect that she felt a little threatened by them and so over compensated with a steeliness that only just kept her anger at simmering point. If pushed in the smallest of ways, that anger surfaced remarkably quickly. I now realise that she was incredibly young and at the time heavily pregnant, so I feel a greater sympathy and understanding than I ever could then. She wore her own, homemade, rather eccentric looking smock suits, which in themselves were quite hippyish. Mrs Brady’s teaching persona, however, was as far away from peace and love as one could possibly get! Think Mrs Thatcher crossed with an angry bear and you get somewhere close!

Basically, I was too afraid to learn, certainly too scared to ask questions. She once hit a boy across the head for moving a test paper; he cried and we all sat in stunned silence. At a parent’s evening she told my mother that I was below average intelligence. No crueller a thing could have been said to me because being a child of such low confidence, I sadly didn’t have the belief in myself to inwardly challenge her judgement. I guessed she knew best and went around feeling below average for the rest of my schooling life. For this alone, she gets my vote as my worst teacher.

My very best, I had to wait a few more years for. The maelstrom that was my early teenage years resulted in my leaving school with minimal qualifications. I went back to college as a mature student in my late twenties to work through a couple of A levels. I had definitely not planned on taking English Lit (I had been refused entry to the exam at secondary school – I would certainly have failed). It was Laurie who persisted that I enrol- it was a decision that was to change the direction of my life.

My English Literature/Language A level teacher was the truly inspiring George Appleby. He was passionate about the subject and his love of and engagement with it was completely infectious. He had a deep interest in the spiritual and psychological which made our explorations of the set works for the course one of depth and joy. He recognised in me an ability to write. It was George that encouraged me to apply to University, an ambition I could never have aspired to, left to my own devices. It was also George who sat with me when I filled in the forms, patiently and persistently fending off my fears and excuses.

George changed my life. He dropped a stone in a pool whose ripples continue to radiate out, touching me and initiating changes still, situations that could never have been if fate or chance had not brought George into my life. Because of George, others have entered my life who have been equally inspiring. In this way life unfolds; the bonds we share become the most extraordinary, ever-expanding web of connection.


Feeding on the Wing

It can be a great comfort to perceive of oneself as part of an ongoing collective tale. We often rail against humanity’s potential to inflict cruelty, pain and suffering and yet I cannot help but feel compassion and admiration. It is remarkable to me that humans continue to live and love, often with passion and commitment, knowing that all they cherish will one day be taken from them. Never knowing the reason for, or meaning of, our existence, we are compelled only to live and accept the mystery, bearing the suffering (when it comes) with grace.

We are in this together. Our bonds of love, joy, pain and loss, and the wisdom that each of these brings us, rings like a clear, pure, infinite note through time; resonating in our cellular and ancestral memories, a baton of sound passed down and on, each of our experiences, deepening and enriching its tone. Our voice is added to the many, becoming a part of the complex and mysterious song of the universe; this song is ever unfolding and reshaping itself that its expression might be truer, more authentic, more itself. Such a perspective can develop an inspiring and enduring sense that our losses are never in vain, any more than our joys.

We do not have to wait until crisis hits to connect and draw strength from our spiritual sources. We can learn to feed and nourish ourselves at all moments, aware that we are emotionally collecting and storing materials that will help us access our resilience more easily and in doing so make the journey through any dark times ahead a little more bearable. These will not necessarily remove the pain but can ease the passage, encouraging us to place our trust in the notion that – in a world that is fuelled by the cycles of movement and change – all things pass.

A primary source for inspiration is found when we go outside, when we engage with the natural world, allowing ourselves to be open to its deep wisdom and nourishment. All that we could want to know about ourselves can be found reflected in the countless daily expressions of life.  

On the steep chalk slope of Culver Down on the Isle of Wight, on the heights looking out over the broad sands of White Cliff Bay, I sat beneath and amongst a vast gathering of swallows feeding upon the wing. Their numbers were countless; looking up through the frenetic twists and turns of their flight, I could discern yet more and more, those at the greatest height merely dots of black, humming particles, the air vibrating with their constant movement.

I had always assumed that like most birds that migrate, swallows increase their feeding just prior to their journey, building up their body weight in order to cope with the arduous demands that face them. Apparently not – feasting entirely on flying insects, they will nourish themselves on the wing, covering 200 miles in a day of what will become a 6,000 mile journey.

I had always thought that the taking on of extra nourishment before such an incredibly tough challenge was a rather helpful metaphor for our own descent into winter/crisis, advising a psychological storing and gathering for tougher times. Learning that these wonderfully joyful creatures do not in fact ‘bulk up’, led to a shift in my thinking. What if, when we find ourselves facing times of trouble or difficulty, we also find that our inner stores are low or near empty? What if we haven’t prepared for the descent into darkness and cold? How would we survive what appears to be an impossible task?

This idea of feeding upon the wing – of taking in what we need throughout an ongoing challenge, seemed to me an equally poignant metaphor. So often when we are faced with loss, we simply don’t feel up to that challenge, our reserves seemingly depleted and inadequate. Like swallows, we have to place our trust in the hope that we will find what we need to make it through, constantly nourishing ourselves as best we can. The swallow’s migration remains arduous and dangerous, many starve and die, and yet many more eventually find themselves back in the warmth and abundance of their winter homes. Their migratory urge is a part of their life and being, deeply encoded within their DNA; the experience is not something that they can choose to avoid or embrace – it simply is. Loss’s presence in our lives is similarly inevitable. If we can stay present, moving through the ups and downs with compassion for ourselves, sensing when we need to feed ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, doing this as best we can given that we might feel utterly broken and incapable of going any further, we might eventually find that we too find ourselves once more ‘at home’ within ourselves and our lives.

Each swallow must beat it own wings to fly but their journeys are never performed alone. Thousands upon thousands fly together, bedding down in large roosts. All swallows will make their bi-annual pilgrimage of necessity, just as all humans will descend into loss and emerge into renewal; all swallows are designed to have great manoeuvrability and endurance; all humans are designed this way too. The swallows inspired me to want to write something about loss that recognised that our deeper engagement with nature was effectively a process of feeding upon the wing; that when we feel broken, nature speaks to us in ways that can aid our healing or support us through. They also made me want to write a spiritual exploration of loss that might say something about those bonds of experience that we share, acknowledging, honouring and giving thanks for them and our place in the greater story of living and dying, both human and in the wider world of nature. By recognising ourselves as vitally connected to the lives of those beings (both human and otherwise) that have gone, those that are, and those still to be, we gradually discover a deeper sense of compassion for our own trials and sorrows, and perhaps in the process, uncover something of the purpose and the meaning of loss and struggle in our lives. Following the thread backwards and forwards, we can perceive a little of the pattern, and this alone can help us to tap into our resilience and strength, aiding us to feel a little less alone when the tough times strike.